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W.J.T. Mitchell in Paris

September 8, 9, 10, 2009
Jennifer A. Donnelly

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1At the rentrée scolaire of 2009, American scholar W.J.T. Mitchell made several appearances in Paris surrounding the French edition of his book Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. This influential work, originally published in 1986 by the University of Chicago Press, has been released by Les Prairies ordinaires in a translation by Maxime Boidy and Stéphane Roth entitled Iconologie : image, textes, idéologie.

  • 1  While the term “visual studies” is used by French sources including the publisher of Iconologie, M (...)

2Mitchell, a professor in the Departments of English and of art history at the University of Chicago, is regarded as a pioneer in the field of visual culture1. Of the numerous books he has written and edited, notable titles include What Do Pictures Want? (2005) and Picture Theory (1994). Since 1978 he has been the editor of the quarterly journal Critical Inquiry.

3In presentations and conversations at the Université de Paris 7, the Institut national d’histoire de l’art (INHA), and the Jeu de Paume, Mitchell focused less on Iconology, which at more than twenty years old is, as its author pointed out, a work of “[his] youth,” than on current themes in his research, particularly the imagery in present-day discourses around terrorism. This topic is at the core of one of his works in progress, Cloning Terror: The War of Images from September 11 to Abu Ghraib. Still, throughout the week, the fundamental preoccupations of Iconology reappeared, in evolved and expanded form, as Mitchell applied visual culture’s mix of art history, aesthetics, literary and political analysis to more current geo-political issues.

8 September 2009: “Idolatry: Nietzsche, Blake, and Poussin,” at Université de Paris 7.

Organized by the Laboratoire de recherches sur les cultures Anglophones (Paris 7), Approches contemporaines de la création et de la réflexion artistique (Université de Strasbourg) & Laboratoire cultures et sociétés en Europe (Strasbourg)

4The paper that Mitchell delivered at Paris-7 explored the bond between idolatry and iconoclasm – “evil twins,” in Mitchell’s words – by analyzing two paintings by Nicolas Poussin through texts by Friedrich Nietzsche and drawings by William Blake. Moving in reverse chronological order, the paper began with an image of Damien Hirst’s “Golden Calf” from the artist’s notorious September 2008 direct-to-auction sale and an invocation of idol-making in the art market. Mitchell then presented images of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan before and after their destruction by the Taliban in March 2001 and of the moments before an airplane struck the second tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Classifying these events as acts of iconoclasm, Mitchell discussed the ideological discourse of both the instigators and of the victims. Emphasis was placed on the Second Commandment’s ban against creating graven images. Giving the biblical text a “word for word” read, he lingered over the implications of a divine interdiction of image making for an image-making people and, of course, for the study of those images.

5Following this introduction, the paper moved on to its central analysis, which involved images and texts decidedly less current than the Taliban and YBAs. Passages from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra and Twilight of the Idols were cited, particularly the philosopher’s suggestion in the latter work that idols not be destroyed violently, but “touched with a hammer as with a tuning fork.” Mitchell was intrigued by Nietzsche’s “inversion and transvaluation” of the “conventional iconoclastic technique,” effectively acknowledging the hollowness at the core of idolatry while avoiding militance in bringing about its destruction. This inversion is also at the core of Mitchell’s reading of Blake. In his illustration from his poem Milton, the artist depicts Los engaged with a clay figure of Jehovah, which can be seen as either molding or destroying. Mitchell underscored the ambivalence in idolatry/iconoclasm dialectic communicated by such a scene and the irony inherent in iconoclasm championed by a creator of images.

6Mitchell’s treatment of these two texts transitioned into a discussion of Poussin. The Adoration of the Golden Calf, which hangs in the National Gallery of London, depicts a scene of Israelites dancing around the idol they created, despite the prohibitions by Moses, who is shown in the background returning from the mountaintop with the tablets on which the commandments are written). The Plague at Ashdod, in the Musée du Louvre, shows the devastation wrought upon the Philistines who worshipped the idol of Dagon, which in the background lies smashed on the ground. In both canvases, the punishments but also the pleasures of idolatry receive the artist’s attention. Mitchell, for his part, admitted a fascination for the idols in these paintings and a sympathy with the idolaters, and mused upon overlaps in approaches amongst the aforementioned painter, poet, and philosopher.

7The paper’s conclusion returned to present day events, with Mitchell pointing out iconographical similarities between Poussin’s Plague at Ashdod and a much-circulated press image of Palestinian children clinging to their deceased mother in Gaza in January 2009. He acknowledged that while his analysis may not be valid “as art history,” as iconology it “may have some traction.”

8The question-and-answer period that followed focused largely upon pertinent applications of such an iconological reading. Asked to identify present-day idols, Mitchell identified “terrorism itself.” He discussed the so-called “War on Terror” and its attendant images – notably the “Shock and Awe” campaign in Baghdad-as examples of idolatry. The economy was cited as another “idol of the age,” particularly in light of the crisis, and Mitchell commented that needed a Nietzschean “sounding out.” Other participants sought to pinpoint more precisely the “goal” of his iconological approach, a theme that recurred in the question-and-answer session two days later at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art.

10 September 2009: Public conversation at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art.

Organized by Art et architecture dans la mondialisation (Département des études et de la recherche – INHA)

9Dialogue throughout the evening centered primarily upon describing the parameters of visual culture and assessing its value. Moderator Philippe Bordes, Director of the Département des études et de la recherche at the INHA, surveyed Mitchell’s formative and formidable achievements in forging the field before launching the discussion by asking whether visual culture should be considered or an “end in itself” or “triangulation.” Mitchell responded with a protracted reflection on the discipline’s origins and evolution that shed insight into his early work and the context in which Iconology was written. Visual culture, Mitchell suggested, should be understood neither as Art History nor as Aesthetics, but as a moment in the gradual expansion of them. Whereas in the early 1980s, literature already had its “expanded field,” with the development of linguistics, poetics, rhetoric, etc Art History did not; and by focusing on aesthetic objects, it excluded photography, design, commercial art, mass culture and media.

10The conversation turned to the Visual Culture’s methodology and inherent interdisciplinarity. Referring to his talk at Paris-7 as a “typical visual culture move,” Mitchell shared some details of his working process. After “thinking long and hard about Poussin,” he explained, he undertook to analyze the paintings by “reading backwards” through Nietzsche and Blake, both of whom represent longstanding interests. The merit of this approach, Mitchell implied, relies on the fact that “paintings acquire meaning as they acquire dust.” The moderator spoke of the vogue prevalent ten years ago for “reading through” an object, analyzing an object by using a text that preceded or followed the object. In response Mitchell insisted that his purpose is to enable “new ways of seeing” or “new angles of vision” and that he does not “mean to make a machine out of this, or even a method.”

11Replying to a question from the audience on the relation of Visual Culture to German Bildwissenschaft, Mitchell acknowledged Gottfried Böhm, Hans Belting, and Horst Bredekamp (whom he referred to as the “Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms of Bildwissenschaft”) as colleagues who, like him, have not stayed within the confines of Art History, but admitted a difference between their perspectives and that of a “North Americanist” such as himself. Another participant asked why Iconology should be translated now. Without directly answering the question, Mitchell described the book as a “time capsule” planted in the 1980s. He acknowledged its debt to French theory of the 1970s and 1980s. It “seemed new at the time,” he said.

12The usage of the terms “visual culture” and “visual studies” was brought up towards the end of the conversation. The two phrases have the same meaning, Mitchell stated, although he prefers “visual culture” as it “stakes out a claim more emphatically”–not to mention, he added somewhat humorously, that there are already “too many things called studies.”

13A final question, a convoluted inquiry regarding links between visual culture and death, left Mitchell as well as at least one member of the audience “stumped,” managed to evoke the concept of cloning, to which he returned in his presentation the following evening.

11 September 2009: “The Future of the Image,” at the Jeu de Paume

  • 2  Mitchell visited the subject of dinosaurs in greater depth in The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and (...)

14The paper that Mitchell delivered at the Jeu de Paume took its title from the English translation of the book Le destin des images (La Fabrique, 2003) by Jacques Rancière, with whom Mitchell engaged in a dialogue on the theme at Columbia University in 2008. The most overtly political of Mitchell’s three presentations in Paris, this paper constructed its discourse around images of animals. As introduction Mitchell displayed two images widely divergent in time: first, cave paintings of bison from Lascaux, and second, a man-made Velociraptor from the film Jurassic Park2. The two images, he posited, represent the beginning and end point of an “odyssey of the image”. As a “reward” for setting out on it, Mitchell promised to share at the end of his lecture a powerful present-day image that is “full of hope for some, and fear for others.”

15A reflection on the future of the image, he argued, does well to consider images of animals, for human depictions of animals predict human behavior. He suggested that depictions of animals show man’s imagination of future events that are hoped for or feared. The Lascaux bison could be read as a sort of “rehearsal” for the hunt, ensuring the successful capture of the animals by the hunters. The Jurassic Park dinosaur is, in the film still that he selected, similarly being “captured” in the flow of light streaming from a projector of its DNA sequence, by means of which humans created it.

16Citing John Berger, Mitchell posited that whatever is done to animals will be done to men: domestication, enslavement, extermination, extinction, cloning. This last act is quite prominent in public consciousness, he argued, presenting images of the cloned sheep Dolly and from the vast number of films with plots built around cloning, particularly the recent Star Wars sequel The Attack of the Clones. For Mitchell, the sharp spike in production of images related to cloning reflects the inevitable extension of the creative act; its ultimate goal is not merely the creation of a new image, but of “a new thing.” Cloning is also present in the accelerated replication and distribution of images made possible by the media and technology, particularly the internet. Images, Mitchell argued, now replicate more quickly than audiences can react to them; or, to use a computer term, are now capable of “going viral.”

17As means of making sense of this image glut, Mitchell invoked a categorization established by Rancière, namely, naked, ostensive, and metaphoric images. The first depict atrocities and are not aesthetic; the second command attention and tend to be religious or political; the third engage the viewer in a “meta” dialogue with the process of image making. Of greatest relevance to the “future of the image” seems to be the category of the metaphoric. Mitchell described this category as “lively and productive,” and capable of producing metamorphoses, one of the fundamental qualities of living things. He cited the artist Mark Wallinger’s re-installation at the Tate Britain of a peace activist’s demonstration that authorities had removed from Parliament Square. He also analyzed the preponderance of images derivative of the Abu Ghraib photographs, particularly one of a cloaked and hooded inmate standing on a box with outstretched arms.

18After analyzing these contemporary images and works of art Mitchell came to the “reward” promised at the beginning of the lecture, which turned out to be a portrait of President Barack Obama by Shepard Fairey. This unofficial portrait, a solarized image from a photograph, was widely reproduced during Obama’s presidential campaign, often accompanied by the caption “Hope.” The prominence of the image demonstrated the power that images can yield in effecting political change. At the same time it inevitably incited iconoclasm. Mitchell cited a cartoon that caused a furor after running in The New York Post on 18 February, 2009, in which a chimpanzee lies bleeding on the ground, shot by a policeman who still holds the gun, as a second policeman comments, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” The scenario refers to a news item current at the time of publication in which a chimpanzee attacked a woman and was then killed. While on the surface the caption seems to use the incident to poke fun at the integrity of the government’s solution to the economic crisis, Mitchell pointed out that many commentators perceived a barely-concealed message of racism, in that “monkey” has long represented a derogatory term for African Americans and President Obama was in charge of the economic package, as well as an incitation to violence. This cartoon brought Mitchell back to his suggestion that opened the paper that human-made images of animals are predictive of the future, which in this context seemed to sound a warning bell.

19The date of the paper’s delivery being September 11, the discussion of iconoclasm and terrorism held particular resonance. To audiences interested in the French translation of Iconology, the increasingly political nature of Mitchell’s presentations throughout the week may have been unexpected. Yet it is worth recalling the immensity of the geopolitical and technological developments that have occurred since Iconology was first published in 1986. The Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall have fallen; the Cold War has ended and long, drawn-out wars in the Middle East have begun; economic bubbles have blown to unprecedented proportions before bursting; the internet and the expansion of the mass media have transformed communications and exponentially increased the diffusion of images on a global scale. From this perspective, the book does indeed seem, to use Mitchell’s phrase, something of a “time capsule.”

20In the wake of Mitchell’s visit questions about the pertinence of visual culture continue to linger. If the paper “Idolatry” is taken as emblematic of the method of this “expanded field,” it can be asked what understanding is gained by analyzing canvases by a seventeenth-century French painter through the ideas of an eighteenth-century English poet/painter and a nineteenth-century philosopher. In the end, what does visual culture do? Whatever that is, can it be done in France? To the many French readers accustomed to stricter divisions between disciplines, the approach may promise expanded and possibilities for scholarship, or it may seem maddeningly amorphous. In any case, the translation of Iconology presents the opportunity to engage in this dialogue to a wider audience, which is certainly a valuable contribution.

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1  While the term “visual studies” is used by French sources including the publisher of Iconologie, Mitchell himself favored the term “visual culture”. See “Q&A at the INHA”, below.

2  Mitchell visited the subject of dinosaurs in greater depth in The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon (Chicago, 1998).

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Jennifer A. Donnelly, « W.J.T. Mitchell in Paris »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2009, mis en ligne le 02 février 2010, consulté le 27 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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