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What Do Pictures Want?

by W.J.T. Mitchell
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005
380pp., illus. 94 b/w, 16 col. Trade, $35.00; paper, $22.50
ISBN: 0-266-53245-3; ISBN: 0-226-53248-8.

Reviewed by Eugene Thacker
School of Literature, Communication & Culture
Georgia Institute of Technology


Unintentionally, I’ve been reading over W.J.T. Mitchell’s book What Do Pictures Want? at the same time that I’ve been watching 1970s horror films about demonic possession. Now, Mitchell’s book does not discuss and is not "about" demonology. However, he does propose that we understand images as "not merely signs for living things but signs as living things" (6). Mitchell’s analyses cover a wide range of images, from popular science fiction to contemporary painting, and the movement of his thinking is consistently interested in the proliferation, circulation, and polysemy of images——through images. But, since I had just watched The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, or Prophecy, I couldn’t help reading this notion of "images as living things" in connection with the extensive iconography of demonic possession: not only in the plethora of religious images (the cross, upright or inverted), but also in the literal and horrific birthing of a particular images, that of the demon or the image-of-evil made flesh. The image that epitomizes this is the brief scene in The Exorcist where young Regan, possessed by a demon, is taken to the hospital, where menacing medical machines engulf, surround, and pierce her body, probing with futile accuracy for the locus of something that exists but cannot be "imaged." Of course, I’m taking a very subjective and divergent "spin" on this book, and this is perhaps unfair to the breadth and acuity of Mitchell’s points. Let us back up, then.

To many, Mitchell is well-known as a scholar who has shaped the field if visual studies. His earlier books, such as Picture Theory, have become standards in college classes on art history, art theory, and cultural studies. Mitchell’s new book, What Do Pictures Want?, is both an extension of his previous work, as well as a kind overview of the ideas that have occupied him for some years. What Do Pictures Want? opens with a statement and a proposal. The statement that Mitchell broadly puts forth is that "pictures, including world pictures, have always been with us, and there is no getting beyond pictures, much less world pictures, to a more authentic relationship with Being, with the Real, or with the World" (xiv). In a hyper-post-non-modern context, such statements are not unusual in themselves, especially given the extensive tradition in cultural theory of thinking about spectacle, simulacra, surveillance, the gaze, and so forth. What Mitchell adds that is refreshingly unique is a proposal: "…images are like living organisms; living organisms are best described as things that have desires (for example, appetites, needs, demands, drives); therefore, the question of what pictures want is inevitable" (11). In a style that is at once disarmingly-simple and yet thought-provoking, Mitchell asks us to confront the question of the "vitality" of images, in all the polyvalent sense of the term. As Mitchell notes, there is "an incorrigible tendency to lapse into vitalistic and animistic ways of speaking when we talk about images" (2). And yet, this lapse does not necessarily make images more substantial or more "real": "they [images] are phantasmatic, immaterial entities that, when incarnated in the world, seem to possess agency, aura, a "mind of their own . . ." (105).

However, behind Mitchell’s proposal that we understand images as "living," we should not assume that our reference is now biology rather than culture, theology rather than politics. Even the most empirical voices of dissent begin to unravel on this question of vitalism: An image is a living organism. What’s a living organism? An entity that self-regulates, grows and dies, and reproduces, and so forth. But even our most fundamental biological concepts deploy a whole host of images, from the divinely-designed creaturely being, to the body-as-machine, to the immunological body as a kind of warring nation-state. "Life," at this level, seems to simply be defined as the horizon (or rather, the vanishing point) of our ability to think about life. Mitchell’s proposal is also not a suggestion that we jettison politics in favor of a new kind of mysticism. His methodological starting points are twofold: that we rethink any exclusive reliance on a fully-agential, autonomous subject (yes, humans with particular interests make images, but what is the context of that "making?"), and that in doing this we move from an emphasis on meaning (what does it mean?) to an emphasis on desire (what do they want?).

If the notion of an image as "living" seems vague, then the structure of What Do Pictures Want? does a great deal to add shape to Mitchell’s proposal. The book is divided into three parts, each of which takes up different aspects of visual culture: "image" (the likeness that appears), "object" (that in which it appears or that which it points to), and "medium" (that through which it appears). Throughout, what is at stake in the vitality of images is their very ability to appear, the poiesis of appearance (which would also include the ability of images to disappear, to reappear, and to circulate). In each section, Mitchell sorts out specific conceptual problems related to the study of images. In a writing style that is clear yet meditative, concise yet open-ended, and, above all, jargon-free, Mitchell unpacks the multi-faceted "life of images," from media images (Dolly the sheep; 9/11; Videodrome), to political propaganda, to Romanticism’s engagement with nature and the animal image, to his single-chapter studies of sculptor Antony Gormley, photographer Robert Frank, the films of Spike Lee, and "art in the age of biocybernetic reproduction." One of the richest segments in the book is Mitchell’s elaboration of the differences and relations between "icon," "fetish," and "totem."

In a sense, there is a double-consciousness in "life": on the one hand, only specific things are alive (the organism, the animal, the plant). But on the other hand, everything is alive, even our machines, even that which is "artificial" life. Perhaps one of the responses to Mitchell’s question is that images want to be alive——and perhaps the greatest challenge from this is thinking this inanimate, nonhuman "life" outside of anthropomorphism . . .



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