January 17, 2009
I'm currently reading W.J.T. Mitchell's Picture Theory. It is a set of essays that explore, from different perspectives, the recent visual or pictorial turn in our culture in postmodernity, the dominance of visuality, the widespread anxieties about the spectacle of the newly forming global visual culture and the postmodern absorption of all language into images and a semiotic hall of mirrors.
For Mitchell the picture is understood in terms of the complex interplay between visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies and figurality; with the realization that spectatorship ( the look, the gaze, the glance, surveillance and visual pleasure may be as deep a problems as various forms of reading (decipherment, decoding interpretation) and that visual experience or visual literacy may not be fully explicable on the model of textuality.
The text asks three questions: What are pictures? What is their relation to language? Why does it matter what pictures are and how they they relate to language? It answers these questions in the context of the word/image types of representation (understood as standing or acting for). Mitchell says that we need a critique of visual culture that takes us beyond the cultural conservative anxieties about television and literacy; a critique that is alert to the power of images for good and evil and which is capable of discriminating the variety an historical specificity of their uses.
The duality of word/mage is undercut by an argument that holds all media are mixed media, all representations are heterogeneous,and that there is no "purely" visual or verbal arts. In so arguing it contests the impulse of modernism to purify media. The text is negative in approach as it is less concerned with a developing a picture theory (or a theory of pictures) than showing how the received answers to the above questions work in practice and unsettling them.
What is disclosed is the problematic of the image/text ---an unstable dialectic of the relationship between the two that constantly shifts its location in heterogeneous representational practices, transgressing both pictorial and discursive frames and undermining the assumptions that underwrite the separation of the discursive and visual disciplines. The category of image/text is not one kind of thing, despite the convention of one being subordinated to the other, as in the newspaper, cartoons or the photographic essay. The category is offered as a wedge to pry open the heterogeneity of media and specific representations and it gives us a site of dialectical tension, slippage and transformation.