W.J.T. Mitchell – What Do Pictures Want?

W.J.T. Mitchell, “The Surplus Value of Images” + “Showing Seeing” in What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, U of Chicago Press, 2005.

What Mitchell is trying to explain in “The Surplus Value of Images” is the nature of images – paradoxically under- and over-estimated – confused with pictures or works of art on the one hand and misrecognized as something dominates the world on the other, from the perspective of “iconology” – the study of images in Mitchell’s own term. By doing this, contrary to our expectation from the title of this article, Mitchell is discussing less about the “surplus value” of images than the (social) “life” – and love – of images. He seems to postulate that images have their own lives quasi-independent from human use or creation of them by supposing the “analogy between images and living organisms”(89). Furthermore, he assumes the co-evolutionary relationship between images and ourselves – images like viruses or parasites depend on us as a host organism.

I believe that this attribution of life to images is a sort of metaphor. I do not think that images have been created or born before the existence of their human hosts. But in a sense that “they change the way we think and see and dream” and that they “refunction our memories and imaginations, bringing new criteria and new desires into the world”(92), images are the real master of the human world. As Mitchell notes, “the life of images is not a private or individual matter” but “a social life”(93), this imaginative or imaginary lives of images are to be considered what have been existed unconsciously through human history – as Freudian psychoanalytic theories might have discovered the real master (unconscious) of our lives (consciousness). As every war is the war of images – whether religious, racial, ethnic, economic, or political – every power is the power of images. As if Marx’s analysis of commodity to understand the surplus value (what maintains capitalism) should have begun from the concept of “fetishism of commodity,” Mitchell’s analysis (and imagination) of images as living beings seems to be a foundation of visual culture as iconology. But one thing that I want to comment on his idea of living images is a danger to be fallen into the new form of Platonism where images take the location of idea (the ideal forms) losing their materiality. Images ideal will not be actualized until they are represented (realized) in a material entity.

Probably that is one of the reasons why he explains visual studies’ “ambiguous relation to art history and aesthetics”(339) in terms of the “dangerous supplement” of visuality in “Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture.” As visual culture as an inter-disciplinary study in academia evokes the “disciplinary anxiety,” visual culture as a new way of thinking (iconology) in the form of the dangerous supplement seems to be recognized and also mis-recognized by its opponents and proponents as well.

Among the myths and countertheses on visual culture, what I paid attention is about dialectical concept of visual culture. A “dialectical concept of visual culture,” writes Mitchell, “cannot rest content with a definition of its object as the ‘social construction of the visual field,’ but must insist on exploring the chiastic reversal of this proposition, the visual construction of the social field”(345). This reminds me of Benjamin’s opposition between “politicization of art” and “aestheticization of politics.” While I can understand the thesis that the visual field is socially constructed without any problem, it is unclear to know how the social field is visually constructed. Does it mean that the society is determined by the visual technology? Is it not the situation that Mitchell himself wants to evade?

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