Thursday, February 24, 2011

How Images Think: A Report on Common Knowledge

I'm really just not sure to start with this book. Perhaps I'll start with a series of rhetorical questions that I won't really address: Why were we assigned this book? Why did I actually read all of this book? Why didn't a stop after I realized I wasn't learning a damn thing? How did Ron Burnett get this past the publishers? Why did I ever think I was a bad writer?
     Well, these are obviously very complex questions that we should research further. But for now, we'll just say that involves a complex set of relationships between my mind, the book, and Western culture.

Anyone who has read this book should recognize my deliberate parody of Burnett's style. The series of questions that Burnett thinks make up a paragraph, a point, or even an argument is pathetic. Furthermore, he uses more useless passive voice constructions than most of my freshman students.

I apologize for the harshness of this blog post, but I really feel like I could have been doing something else better with my life. There were brief glimpses of text where I thought "ok, he'll elaborate this/define it better later"--but no, he never does. I call the book a report on common knowledge because Burnett doesn't seem interested in making any strong or unique arguments. Of course one could argue that much of my favorite French Theorists also tend not to make arguments. That may be true, but at least Baudrillard, Bachelard, Derrida, and Foucault define their terms well and at length. They not only offer a new language to describe reality, but they also make subtle distinctions rather than leaving it to the cop-out (argument?) of reality and illusion are "on a continuum." This move is how he pedantically avoids binaries. . .good for him, but i'll take binaries over useless descriptions.

I will now list all of the things that piss me off about this book. With each complaint, I will reference specific moments in the text as evidence.

1.) Reductive readings and considerations of major thinkers (who are not only better writers, but better thinkers than Burnett.

Exhibit A: "It is precisely because images are the product of a particular moment that more must be added to them than is ever present in the images themselves. This excess, which is often seen as somehow interfering with the meaning of the image, is a necessary staging ground for interpretation and analysis (Deleuze 1986; Eco 1984)" (Burnett 15).

Now, before you get angry, I realize that he is using a different citation style than MLA, but WHERE is this in Deleuze and Eco? Its such a general statement anyone could have said it. Barthes says a similar thing in Image Music Text about obtuse meaning. I think Burnett just wanted to cite Deleuze and Eco. Deleuze is never quoted at all in the rest of the text--which is a shame because he is a much better writer than Burnett.

Exhibit B: "Ironically [we'll return to this constantly misused adverb] it is also why so many new technologies and new media have been criticized for being artificial than extensions of existing mediums of expression that allow the exploration of new image terrains (Baudrillard 1990). In addition, for Baudrillard (1996) the virtual is described as "something that doesn't happen" as if mediated experiences negated or reversed the relationships between the real and the artificial" (Burnett 113).

So B (1990) is cited in the bibliography as Fatal Strategies. I just read Fatal Strategies in its entirety, taking detailed notes for Ulmer's course and I'm not sure that one can ascribe the position of critiquing new media to Baudrillard. Like Burnett, he seems to be making broad sweeping generalizations about the loss of the "scene" to the "obscene" that occurs with news media, but Baudrillard's position cannot be so easily pinned down. Baudrillard is just as generalizing, but he is aware that his philosophy is "poetic"--Burnett tries to cite both french theory and scientific studies to fool people into thinking that he is more 'credible' and 'interdisciplinary'. This is the approach he calls for and I presume what he thinks he's doing, but I think he lacks any rigorous argumentation and evidence.

2.) The use of the adverb "ironically" without any elaboration of why something is ironic. Furthermore, no one should use "ironically" as much as it appears in this book.

pg 113, above
pg 137: "Ironically, so much of what happens in the human body is not in anyone's control"
pg 139: "It is an irony that machines, particularly computers, are allowing researchers to rewrite the underlying codes for the natural world"
pg 164: "Ironically, as the pipes have grown larger and as more and more people have connected to them, there has been increasing pressure to develop additional content"

(you get the point--this is annoying as hell).

3.) The juvenile use of barrages of rhetorical questions never addressed subsequently; other meta-language indicators that are useless due to his use of headlines.

(explained above)

4.) His relentless insistence that we not describe the mind as mechanical, but offering us a vague alternative he never elaborates on called "reverie" and "imagination"

"Reverie is often referred to as 'suspension of disbelief' with respect to viewing films and television shows, reading novels, listening to music, and so on. But the process is more complex than that. Reverie is one of the foundations for all these activies, one of the fundamental ways in which humans are able to activate the relationships among their own thoughts and daydreams and the requirements of viewing and listening experiences. Reverie permits and encourages empathy" (Burnett 53).

First, who the hell ever called reverie/imagination a "suspension of disbelief" and how exactly is that applied also to the other media he discusses. Second, we might think that we are going to get an elaborate discussion of what he can possibly mean by the connections between reverie, empathy, and daydreams. Indeed, I expected an engagement with Bloch, who talks at length about the importance of daydreams. Or at the very least, since reverie encourages empathy, we might expect a discussion of the ethical implications of this. However, Burnett will give us none of this. Reverie is referred to again and again with little elaboration on the concept--it is assumed we know what it means. 15 pages from the end, Burnett returns to reverie:

"Reverie is a crucial concept that explains how the experiences of interacting with images and stories of all sorts connect to listening and daydreaming. Reverie is a reflective process that allows for what I call 'waves of interaction.' This metaphor refers to the complex movements of waves on a beach as viewed by the human subject" (204).

He then goes on to connect reverie to "gaze" as opposed to "look," where he actually makes a clear distinction: "gazing is not the same as looking. To gaze is to scan, while to look means that an effort has to be made to focus on some features of the environment being observed [. . .] Gazing is more of a background activity" (204). So reverie is linked with gazing. . .

Ok, so he gives us a little blurb about reverie at the end, but if this is such a "crucial concept" why is it not explained earlier? Why doesn't it permeate the majority of the book? (oh god!! I'm beginning to ask rhetorical questions--his style has rubbed off on me and I am now yelling "Unclean!!!! unclean!!)

5.) His fetishism of technology--as if he is shocked or surprised by mundane objects; related: useless adjectives like "fascinating, interesting, interestingly, is interesting" etc. etc. Over and over again, it seems like he has taken our class's mode of engagement "hey, this shit is cool" and decided he was going to write an academic text in this manner.

Example: "The extraordinary thing is how ready users are to 'play' with these limitations and how so much energy has been devoted to conquering the problems that the interfaces pose" (Burnett 185)

6.) un-insightful comments on technology:

See "What telephones have done. . ." (Burnett 132)

And his reflections on word processors (insights that I made in my freshman year of college) (Burnett 114-115)

7.) His uncritical attitude toward his own concepts, terminology, and assumptions, preferring to endorse the 'virtual' as sites of interaction and relying on only one mode of posthuman thought (Futurism) that privilege the Mind over body (even though he tries desperately to talk about the body).

He cites McLuhan on telephones as 'extensions' of our body and says its only "partially correct" (134), explaining "The notion of extension still makes it seem as if the machine were other to the humans who use it. Clearly, incorporation is a better term to describe the breadth and extent of human-machine relation. Incorporation works both ways. And incorporation is, in my opinion, an ecological term" (134).

So incorporation (inc.) is an ecological term. Ok, I can buy that, but why does he say that "clearly" we have to make sure we don't represent the phone as other? Does he privately fantasize about Kurczweil and Moravec's dream of getting to the point where we can become disembodied--or that we basically morph into machines (but machines with "imagination"?). There are no extended reflections on the body. . .just some gestures toward Katherine Hayles and Donna Harroway. Also, what does he mean by "ecological term"? Does he ever really go into what he means by "ecology"? Not really. (damnit, there I go again with the questions).

8. A sort of teleological, "phase" approach to technology--believing that technology's progress is inevitable and mostly using the phrase "will be" to describe what he *knows* is goign to happen as technology develops.

"I regard the period of aesthetic experimentation in video and computer games to be in its early phase" (193).

9.) The random placement of blocked off text on the sides of pages, with no real rhyme and reason--some of them are quotes, some reflections. This seems like a cool idea, but they add nothing to what he is saying. Are these simply things he wished he could put in the book but didn't think he could fit them into his argument?

(pgs 193, 134-135, 130, etc.)

The text also seems "dated" somehow. How, we might ask, can Burnett's 2004 text seem more dated than Mitchell's written in the 90's? Well, this is a question I will attempt to answer: Mitchell's text uses subtle analytical and philosophical techniques located within a specific text and cultural/historical situation. Burnett's text relies on a cataloging of various technologies that he thinks have affected us differently.

Burnett never gets into questions about what technology is in its essence. This is the province of technics (which I'm becoming more and more sympathetic to these days).

I'll take Heidegger's obscure struggles and meditations on language any day to this mess of scholarship.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Contested Public Space: A Contemporary Extension of Mitchell's discussion of the Public Sphere

 "Identifying the use of space in any given moment--the occupation of space in any given moment--provides the opportunity to reveal contrasting, contradictory uses of space, to identify the ideological struggles that look to inscribe meaning" --Sid Dobrin, "The Occupation of Composition"

In the second half of Mitchell's book, Mitchell takes on the problem of public space, art, and representation. Clearly, we have not moved beyond this important debate about public space. While so many things have overshadowed it, who could forget the fiery debate about the plan to build a mosque at ground zero in New York? 

Rather than take one side or the other--particularly because the debate seems to have calmed down or simply been forgotten by the media and the American public--I would like to look at why people care so much. First, as many have pointed out, the "mosque" is actually a community center. Furthermore, this center is two blocks from ground zero itself. So why the contesting of the mosque?

Well, I would say that even though I agree that they have the right to build there--it IS a big deal. And it is not because, as the firefighter in the above youtube video proclaims, that we don't want the dead's families to suffer more. Its not the families independently that will suffer (unless they are told that they should be suffering by the media). This argument focuses on the "private" reasons for not building a mosque. We might ask, why the hell do we all of a sudden care about people's private suffering, when we usually pass it by (myself included)? I would argue that people are trying to express a concept of space that will confuse our conceptions of a rational democracy. The space is not only "symbolic" either. . .it is even more than that.

Allow me to digress: a lot of Americans don't understand the significance of the Israel-Palestine debate over the gaza strip. I myself have once said--"its just a piece of land." To our christianized nation--yes--its just a piece of land, but for these people the land is sacred.

But how would we (the educated mostly left leaning academics at UF) react if Sarah Palin or any of the right called the space "sacred"? This would only be one more reason for us to argue that the right is once again confusing religion and politics. The very word 'sacred' echoes in our head as a religious battle--a battle between the Christian West and Islam--with Islam occupying the space of the Other. 

While I think we are correct in criticizing the critics of the community center as coming dangerously close to denying a core American value of freedom of religion, I think that rather than dwell on that issue we need to understand that we cannot just get rid of a space that has been claimed 'sacred'--that if we admit that space is never innocent or neutral, that we cannot always uphold this illusion of religious freedom.

I turn now to an excerpt from Henri Lefebvre on monuments to elaborate on the connection between the sacred and what we now know as 'ground zero'.Ground Zero has already become an American Monument (albeit a negative one) indicated by the eventual building of a memorial/museum where the WTC stood (on a side note, its interesting to note that we have transformed the event to 'ground zero' rather than the WTC, eliminating the crucial context of the WTC as the hub of global capitalism). Lefebvre claims that a monumental space, as opposed to a mere 'building' "is determined by what may take place there and consequently by what may not take place there  (prescribed/proscribed, scene/obscene). A memorial and museum can take place there, because these are (without using the words) 'sacred' objects in our culture (indeed, the connection between the sacredness of museums and monuments in contrast to 'public art' may be a fascinating study--or rather, a fascinating career). An islamic community center cannot take place there, because to our Christianized nation in the wake of islamic terrorism, Islam is a profane religion--even, to some, a religion of hate and violence (in other words, no religion like me know).

Another short digression, while above I argued that we need to focus on the public meaning rather than the private meaning (the families of 9/11 or firefighters of 9/11) Lefebvre does claim that "monumental space permits a continual back-and-forth between the private speech of ordinary conversations adn the public speech of discourses, lectures, sermons, rallying cries, and all theatrical forms of utterance" (355). Though I'm not quite sure what to make of this, I suspect that it complicates my above claim.

This final quote from Lefebvre is important for understanding why the monumental space of 'ground zero' is so sacred to Americans:

"Thus each monumental space becomes the metaphorical and quasimetaphysical underpinnings of a society, this by virtue of a play of substitutions in which the religious and political realms symbolically (and ceremonially) exchange attributes--the attributes of power; in this way the authority of the sacred and the sacred aspects of authority are transferred back and forth, mutually reinforcing one another in the process [. . .] The famous bar which, according to the followers of Saussure, separates signifier from signified and desire from tis object, is in fact transportable hither and thither at the whim of society, as a means of separating the sacred from the profane and of repressing those gestures which are not prescribed by monumental space--in short, as a means of banishing the obscene" (356).

I hope that my brief comments are not taken as support for the Right's Islamophobia. Rather, I want to ask how monumental space confuses American so-called separation between church and state as well as freedom of religion.

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.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Barthes--Terminology and Trauma


1. Signifiance/obtuse meaning--

--"in short, what the obtuse meaning disturbs, sterilizes, is metalanguage criticism [. . .] obtuse meaning is discontinous, indifferent to the story and to the obvious meaning" (61).

--"obtuse meaning appears necessarily as a luxury, an expenditure with no exchange" (62)

--"the obtuse meaning is the epitome of a counter-narrative; disseminated; reversible, set to its own temporality" (63).

--"in other words, the third meaning structures the film differently without--at least in SME--subverting the story" (64).

--two types of criticism 1) signifiosis and 2) signifiance: "the choice (the voice?) of  pun, anagram, semantic metathesis, spoonerism: there is a sliding within codes--meaning remains but pluralized, cheated, without law of content, message, truth" (206-207).

--"the grain is that: the materiality of the boy speaking its mother tongue; perhaps the letter, almost certainly signifiance" (182).

2. social gest--"a gesture or set of gestures (but never a gesticulation) in which a whole social situation can be read" (74).

3. tableaux--"Does the tableux have a subject (a topic)? No wise; it has a social meaning, not a subject. The meaning begins with the scoial gest" (75).

--"the tableux is intellectual; it has something to say (something moral, social) but it also says that it knows how this must be done; it is simultaneously significant and propadeutical, impressive and reflexive, moving and conscious of the channels of emotion" (70).

--"Is the tableaux then [. . .] a fetish object? Yes, at the level of the ideal meaning; no, at that of its composition" (71).

4. Connotation--"photographic connotation, like every well-structured signification, is an institutional activity; in relation to society overall, its function is to integrate man, to reassure him" (31, italics mine)

 5. rhetoric-- ". . .rhetoric thus appearing as the signifying aspect of ideology. Rhetorics inevitably vary by their substance (her articulated sound, there image, gesture, or whatever) but not necessarily by their form, common for instance to dream, literature, and image. Thus, the rhetoric of the image (that is to say, the classification of its connotators) is specific to the extent that it is subject to physical constraints of vision [. . .] but general to the extent that the 'figures' are never more than formal relations of the elements" (49).

6. writing (ecriture)--"There is in writing the beginnings of a mass gesture: against all discourses (modes of speech, instrumental writings, rituals, protocols, social symbolics), writing alone today, even if still in the form of luxury, makes of language something atopical, without place. It is this dispersion, this unsituation, which is materialist" (213).

Denotation/trauma: "The trauma is the suspension of language, a blocking of meaning [. . .] the photograph about which there is nothing to say" (31).

"Truly traumatic photographs are rare, for in photography the trauma is wholly dependent on the certainty that the scene 'really' happened, the photographer had to be there (the mythical definition of denotation)" (31).

"the mythological effect of a photograph is inversely proportional to its traumatic effect" (31).

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:  

Which one of these photos is explicable? Which one is able to be "said" in Barthes sense. I ask you this because of Barthes definition and elaboration on "trauma." almost 10 years after 9/11, 9/11 has come to 'signify' in our cultural code several things and pictures like the 'breaking news' one framed the event as a terrorist attack. Can we escape the connotations of "9/11"--can we escape our immediate associations with George Bush, Iraq, and, Osama Bin Laden, and terrorism?

What is the second picture a picture of?

Remains. . . .



But what is it? What is it representing? Paul Virilio gives the caption: "September 11th, 2001, United States."

Does it look like 9/11 to you? Not to me. There are no planes and. . .where is the terrorist discourse? What can we really "say" in terms of the "meaning" of this photograph? Does it achieve "denotation" status--and thus 'traumatic'? Does it elicit emotional responses in us, or are we estranged from the event (Brecht)?

Does this photograph take us out of the "narrative" (diegesis) of 9/11 and throw us into the realm of signifiance? Is signifiance another meaning for "denotation"? For. . .perhaps. . .materiality??

But wait! For Barthes, the "trauma is wholly dependent on the certainty that the scene 'really' happened; the photgrapher had to be there" (30). But is this what makes the picture traumatic? Or is it the opposition of traumatic?

As Sid said in class the other day, I think we need to throw out this idea of "being there" (in the phenomenological sense). I think Barthes himself tries to get beyond this idea when speaks of "writing" as that which is "atopical, without place" (213). This is obviously different from the invention of alphabetical writing, moving on to the Text. Alphabetical writing made the "topics" of Aristotle possible, but here Barthes is inaugurating a new sort of writing, in the name of "materialism" (following Brecht's revolutionary impulses).

The dissonance I see in Barthes writing is that he speaks in the "photographic image" about denotation and trauma---something that disrupts meaning, then he speaks of signifiance which disrupts narrative (but does it disrupt discourse completely?) and then he speaks of writing, which disrupts discourse. But is this "writing" that he speaks of--which he defines as a "mass gesture," the kind of "ideal meaning" he had reserved for the tableaux/social gest? He speaks of a "generalization of the subject" and he does seem to want to get past what he calls "mythologies."

In the first essay, he says that it is 'denotation' that gets past mythologies--so the question becomes--is "signifance" another name for this meaning? I would like to think so, but I cannot help thinking that Barthes still believes signifiance to be, in a sense, readable not as a narrative, but as a signifier: "For written texts, unless they are very conventional, totally committed to logico-temporal order, reading time is free; for film, this is not so, since the image cannot go faster or slower without losing its perceptual figure. The still, by instituting a reading that is at once instantaneous and vertical scorns logical time" (68). But, he adds, this filmic aspect is an "indescribable meaning" (68).

But, upon closer inspection, it does not seem as though the meaning is indescribable because it is the ideal All or Form (or "Real) that we can only approach but not touch, but rather because of the specific "sliding" relationship between the still and the narrative of the film. This is why Barthes claims that the obtuse meaning that "neither the simple photograph nor figurative painting can assume since they lack the diegetic horizon" (66). This caveat saves Barthes "signifiance" from falling into a post-structuralist term for "depth" (However, my other post on Merleau-Ponty explores how his concept of depth may be similar to Barthes "signifiance").

 Traumatic Photographs: Re-visited

So, after carefully making distinctions, we can return to my question (though far from provide answers) to the photographs above.

If we take Barthes distinctions seriously, then the "still" of the news report would contain more "signifiance" than the photograph. The news report is caught up within the "narrative" of 9/11. Now, Barthes may argue that a "news report" is not a "film" in the sense that he is using it, but my reading hinges on assuming that it is a 'film'. But the news report--because of the repetition and circulation of that perspective on 9/11--has lost any "signifiance' that it may have had because it is swallowed up in the narrative. Allow me to rephrase, the 9/11 still does not allow for any "excess"--it is all contained in a convenient frame.

In contrast, the second photograph, I think, contains this excess expenditure, as one cannot discern the pictures location of narrative. In Barthes terms, this photograph is successfully a "mass gesture" "against all discourse" and "atopical"--it is more like "writing" than simple narrative.

Ultimately, I would argue, that the photograph retains a sense of "inhumanness." I mean this in the sense that the photograph does not concern any "human" subject--symbolic or literal. Instead, the photograph reveals the fragments of a building--an anonymous building, escaping the tyranny of the symbolic and the imaginary order--daring us to confront the other side of the Real.