Saturday, August 7, 2010

Picture Theory

Mitchell, W.J.T. Picture Theory. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

In the introduction to Picture Theory, Mitchell states that his book “investigates the interactions of visual and verbal representation in a variety of media, principally literature and the visual arts”; but more than merely describing these “interactions,” the author wishes “to trace their linkages to issues of power, value, and human interest” (5). Of course, he immediately complicates this notion of a verbal-visual binary with the claim that “all media are mixed media, and all representations are heterogeneous; there are no 'purely' visual or verbal arts” (5). To a certain extent, this is both the rhetorical and formal structure of the book writ large: a continual series of dialectical negations, “not in the Hegelian sense of achieving a stable synthesis, but in...Adorno's sense of working through contradiction interminably” (418). Mitchell divides Picture Theory into five sections, with each section subdivided further into chapters. Section I, titled “Picture Theory,” begins by laying out the historical and critical foundations of what the author calls the “Pictorial Turn.” This turn, like the linguistic and ethical turns preceding it, stems “from a point of peculiar friction and discomfort across a broad range of intellectual inquiry” (13); but far from replicating traditional lines of inquiry, such as mimetic and correspondence theory promoted within art history/theory, the pictorial turn is “a postlinguistic, postsemiotic rediscovery of the picture as a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies, and figurality” (16). Likewise, the problematics inherent to “spectatorship," as well as the expansive historical and cultural networks enveloping a particular representation, must also be considered (16). Mitchell's next point of departure is metapictures and their ability to “provide their own metalanguage,” wherein these images “might be capable of reflection on themselves, capable of providing second-order discourse” (38). In the final subsection of “Picture Theory,” the author engages the term “imagetext” and discusses the “infinite” and “unstable dialectic that constantly shifts its location in representational practices” (83) when dealing with image and text composites. To wit, Mitchell presents readers with the theoretical underpinnings of his argument that are not predicated upon simple binaries, but upon a “whole ensemble of relations between media, [wherein] relations can be many other things besides similarity, resemblance, and analogy” (89). Furthermore, these “relations” are “open” so as to preserve the “radical incommensurability” (90) between “media” elements. While few firm conclusions are established, the author makes clear that he intends to “decenter...the purist's image of media” (97). The second major section of Picture Theory, “Texutal Pictures,” offers close readings of literary texts that incorporate, in one manner or another, images. The opening subsection explores Blake's illuminated texts, followed by an examination of ekphrastic poetry (which he further parses out into “indifference,” “hope,” and “fear”) (152-4), and, finally, the manner in which narratives (specifically slave narratives) are disrupted by moments of description (i.e. imagism). Section III, “Pictorial Texts,” intends to be the chiasmic reversal of the previous section, in that Mitchell presents three subsections that demonstrate how language enters the visual zone; to do so, he first analyzes abstract art and how its desire to extricate language (i.e. narrative) from works actually generated an extensive scaffolding of theoretical language to support it, then the minimalist-period of Robert Morris' career, and concludes with and extended look at the subgenre of photographic essays that, more often than not, fosters “a the text-photo relation” (287). “Pictures and Power,” which is the title of section IV, returns to a more theoretical plane, working through the dialectics of illusion(ism) and (ir)realism. To this extent, Mitchell expands the dialectical model of illusion-realism into (illusion-illusionism)-(realism-irrealism), and thus creates a multivalent approach that introduces an ever widening discourse fraught with complexities. Moreover, the author invokes Foucault's conception of power and the imagetext's complicity with those power relations (324). Picture Theory's final section, “Pictures and the Public Sphere,” further extends the notion of imagetexts and power, but contrasts Foucault's concept with that of Habermas' concept of the public sphere as an “ideological template” that promotes “uncoerced reason and free discussion” (363). While much of this section focuses on Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Oliver Stone's JFK, Mitchell provides a thorough and incisive study of “public art” and the manner in which it not only collapses “the distinction between symbolic and actual violence,” but necessarily induces violence (374-5). The book closes with a brief conclusion in which Mitchell glosses the questions: What lies outside of representation? Why are we so anxious with regard to representation? and What is our responsibility with/to/for representation?

No comments: