W. J. T. Mitchell’s Iconology and Picture Theory


What is an image? What is picture? Rather, what is the relationship between image and idea, image and word, the visual and the verbal, or the visible and the sayable? What is the relation of pictures and language? Is the one superior to the other, or each of them belongs to the different realm? The thing that Mitchell surpass other contemporary visual studies scholars – especially in art history – in his Iconology and its companion book, Picture Theory, is that his questions are not limited to the visual, usually understood, material (pictorial or artistic) images. Instead of just pointing out the difference between them, praising or devaluating the visual images, he pays attention to the dialectic relationship between material images and mental images. In other words, he focuses on the way of representation in which thoughts have constructed, while looking into the theoretical history of pictures.

Although he acknowledges the gulf between the image (“the sign that pretends not to be a sign masquerading as … natural immediacy and presence”) and the word (“the artificial, arbitrary production of human will that disrupts natural presence”), his investigations in these books are concentrated on the dialectic relation between them:

The dialectic of word and image seems to be a constant in the fabric of signs that a culture weaves around itself. . . The history of culture is in part the story of a protracted struggle for dominance between pictorial and linguistic signs, each claiming for itself certain proprietary rights on a “nature” to which only it has access (Icon 43).

And the relation between them are literally political in the sense that we tend to consider them “as a struggle for territory, a contest of rival ideologies”(Icon 43). Furthermore, the place where we stand in the realm of representation deeply related with other problem such as recognition of the world and expression of the self – “the relationship between words and images reflects, within the realm of representation, signification, and communication, the relations we posit between symbols and the world, signs and their meanings”(Icon 43).

In Picture Theory, Mitchell repeats almost the same discussion on the relation between images and words but with a slight variation. As an extension of Iconology, now he “investigates the interactions of visual and verbal representation in a variety of media, principally literature and the visual arts” (Picture 4-5). And his main argument is that “the interaction of pictures and texts is constitutive of representation as such: all media are mixed media, and all representations are heterogeneous; there are no “purely” visual or verbal arts” (Picture 5). Here the relation between words and images is more interactive and even more intermingled. However, his 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). How can he picture theory?

Mitchell creates a couple of new theoretical concepts to explain this complicated and diverse relationships or junctions between picture and theory:

1) “hypericons”:

Though Mitchell does not develop fully this concept in both books, he uses it in a specific way to indicate the “the temptation to see ideas as images” such as “Plato’s cave, Aristotle’s was tablet, Locke’s dark room, Wittgenstein’s hieroglyphic,” which “provide our models for thinking about all sort of images – mental, verbal, pictorial, and perceptual”(Icon 6). It is mostly what philosophers have strategically used to picture (represent) their idea. That might be what Deleuze called the “image of thought,” which enables (metaphysical) pursuit of the truth but predetermines the whole possibility of thinking.

For Mitchell, “hypericons” means “figures of figuration, pictures that reflect on the nature on the nature of images,” and “Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit, Foucault’s Las Meninas, Lessing’s Laocoon. . . all serve, like the philosophers’ images” as “hypericons” (Icon 158). They are icons (visual images), but with the prefix of “hyper-” they designate verbal or mental images which represent the foundation of theoretical projects. This concept of “hypericons” appears again under the name of “metapictures” in Picture Theory.

The “hypericons” that Mitchell tries to investigate at the end of Iconology are concerned with Marx’s two concepts of ideology and commodity. According to Mitchell, “Marx makes the concepts of ideology and commodity concrete the way poets and rhetoricians always have, by making metaphors”(162). The metaphor for ideology is the camera obscura, and the image behind the concept of commodity is the fetish (or idol).

2) “metapictures”:

This concept refers to “pictures about pictures – that is, pictures that refer to themselves or to other pictures, pictures that are used to show what a picture is”(35). In other words, though they are pictures painted by artists, they give something to think about pictures themselves to beholders (or philosophers). Like Greenberg has mentioned on modernist arts as exploration of the nature of their own medium, the “metapictures” are self-referential and in Thierry de Duve’s words, “self-analytic”(Picture 36).

While the “hypericons” are philosophers’ strategic use of image to their thought, the “metapictures” are in turn arts’ intervention to the philosophical process to ask the status of them. Nonetheless, both concepts are cooperative, or rather mutually constitutive. Mitchell thinks that the “metapicture is a piece of moveable cultural apparatus, one which may serve a marginal role as illustrative device or a central role as a kind of summary image,” and this is actually what he called “hypericon” which “encapsulates an entire episteme, a theory of knowledge”(Picture 49). The “metapictures” or “discursive hypericons” – such as Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit, Alain’s “Egyptian Life Class,” or Steinberg’s “New World” as well as camera obscura, tabula rasa, cave and so on – “epitomize the tendency of the technologies of visual representation to acquire a figurative centrality in theories of the self and its knowledges”(Picture 49). However, these metapictures “are not merely epistemological models, but ethical, political, and aesthetic “assemblages” that allow us to observe observers” and they “don’t merely serve as illustrations to theory; they picture theory”(Picture 49).

In some sense, Velásquez’s Las Meninas is a “meta-metapicture.” As Foucault said, this picture is a “representation, as it were, of Classical representation,” because, as Mitchell notes, it is “a comprehensive figure not only of a painterly style, but of an episteme, an entire system of knowledge/power relations” (Picture 58). In the same context, Mitchell calls Magritte’s Les Trahison des Image (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”) “talking metapictures,” in the sense that it is “a representation of the relation between discourse and representation, a picture about the gap between words and pictures”(Picture 65). By calling into question the very relationship between image and language, metapictures “interrogate the authority of the speaking subject over the seen image” (Picture 68). That is to say, metapictures are “depicting and deconstructing the relation between the first-order image and the second-order discourse”(Picture 68).

Why is this investigation on the relation of image to language significant? Why do we have to look into the intimate relations between them, even when we are already under the influence of the power of images? Why are the images problematic now? These questions are already included in Mitchell’s interrogation when he asks “why a pictorial turn seems to be happening now, in . . . ‘postmodern’ era” (Picture 15). Mitchell thinks that we are in a paradoxical condition, in which the advancement of technologies are opening unprecedented power and space for the visual, on the one hand (positive), and overwhelming power of images is intimidating the subjects, on the other hand (negative). Only in this paradoxical situation, after the pictorial domination, we seem to realize a necessity to investigate the relation of images to words, pictures to ideas. “The pictorial turn is not just about the new significance of visual culture; it has implications for the fate of reading, literature, and literacy”(Picture 418). So the pictorial turn reaches to the very concept of culture – in Marxian context, ideology. That is why Mitchell tries to ask the relation between image and ideology. To put it another way, the problem of image (iconology) is, in the end, that of ideology; both have political concerns. Whether philosophical (epistemological), pictorial, social (political), or even ethical representation, the relations of images and words (ideas) are fundamental. As the examples of “hypericons” and “metapictues” show, thought is in itself image, and the representation is in nature heterogeneous.


W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, U of Chicago Press, 1986.

W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, U of Chicago Press, 1994.


One comment

  1. Pingback: Hypericon huisarts | Millerslandsca

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