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WJT Mitchell, Picture Theory

Mitchell argues that we are experiencing a “pictoral turn” which is actually a return to pictures as an interplay between people, institutions, and looking. It is the realization that spectatorship is as important as reading, and that images are not subservient to text. He believes that the best way to combat growing surveillance and propaganda images is with critique, and so his book is an attempt to explore the specifics of that critique: the nuances of pictures and how they relate to words, power, and surveillance. There are no “pure” arts, and pictures and words, while there are important distinctions between them, words and images are almost never totally separate. The only issue is that we still don’t know what pictures are, and how they affect the world. His initial definition of the picture is a concrete object that contains images, but as he admits throughout the book, the category can be much more complex.

Most of the middle of this book is taken up by defending the ability of images to function as importantly as text has usually been thought to. Pictures can create their own theory, as in pictures that show images being created like Las Meninas. If pictures can theorize their own nature, they can also help us to undiscipline ourselves and stop separating words and images. The importance of images as theory (as opposed to visual language that posits the truth as imageless) can be seen in the work of William Blake, as well as in photo essays that separate word and image and in doing so make sure that one is not seen as subservient to the other.

In this chapter on essays, he troubles “the aestheticizing response to what after all is a real person in desperately impoverished conditions”, in reference to Evans’ photos of people in the Great Depression. This strikes the same note as Sontag’s thoughts on war photography. However, Mitchell thinks this problem can be subverted by the way image and text are separated in Evans’ essay, preventing the reader/viewer from completely internalizing the subject and is in fact an ethical stance that gives its subjects privacy. Another essay he looks at in this section is Camera Lucida, which he argues is a rare example of an essay on photography that is also a photo essay. This is because Barthes’ images are not illustrating the text, but are given co-equality, sometimes not receive textual commentary, and even when they do not being reduced to examples for the text. Barthes is not mastering the photos, and he can’t take them; he’s an observer.

The last part of this book brings together Mitchell’s theory of images with his perspective on modern power dynamics. He expresses image power through two terms: illusionism, which is the power of suggestion or deception towards a subject, i.e. the spectacle (an ad), and realism, which is the power of surveillance directed at an object or a subject made “objective”, and which relies on an interchangeable “normative” subject, i.e. capacity (bureaucracy).Spectacle is an ideological form of realism, and realism is spectacle’s bureaucratic and disciplinary manifestation. The telescreen of 1984, and by extension the television, brings together illusionism and realism, offering propaganda and convincing arguments while also acting as a tool of surveillance. As he says in his first chapter, “[technologies] are altering the conditions under which human vision articulates itself” (24). This eliminates the boundary between the public and private sphere and decreases the resonance of usual oppositions (mass market vs avant garde, art vs camp, etc.), foreclosing possibilities for resistance. There is also a new “transparency” to images, as seen in the Rodney King beating and footage, which is made of “accidental” or non-professional images, as opposed to the smooth scheduling of other television, which is not opposed to transparency but helps enable it. He argues that this is a sign that we are moving from interpreting visual images to changing them, establishing a similar shift to that Denson identifies from cinema to post-cinema. This new visual culture has the potential to be used in service of “soft” fascism, but it might also be used for more critical images of the public sphere (369).

One main way he sees modern art creating this critical space is through destructible art, which is made to be destroyed or to be unmarketable. Although a lot of art resists this, and even more fails at it, there is the potential for self-destroying art to bring back the lost oppositions and re-organize the public vs. private issue. As he reminds us, the public is built on its exclusions, even when it is aesthetically inclusive (i.e. the statue of liberty in a country that disenfranchises women). Public art, while it has been said to be intrinsically violent, is based in either doing or representing violence; often it obscures the violence it is doing by appearing passive or static, while television foregrounds and exaggerates it. In addition, public art aspires to cinema; it wants to be photographed. This leads into a discussion of the contrasting visuals of the Vietnam War and Operation Gulf Storm, which were on the one hand focused on the human body and on the other focused on computerized images.

Mitchell describes his stance in the conclusion as a “de-disciplinary effort”: if literary studies wants to deal with media and mass culture, it can’t simply add it on to the existing framework. Instead, we have to find a new way of looking at images. He ends with the statement, “though we probably cannot change the world, we can continue to describe it critically and interpret it accurately. In a time of global misrepresentation, disinformation, and systemic mendacity, this may be the moral equivalent of intervention” (425). This is a pretty good summary of his stance towards contemporary media. Like Sontag, he is concerned about the potential for new media to disseminate misinformation and propaganda, and (to a limited extent) commercialization. However, he is much more interested in the importance of critique: if we can critique images, we can learn from them. He does not believe that we gain power over pictures by understanding what they are doing, but does believe in the investment in a “negative critical space” that reveals how little we still know about pictures and how they are ultimately, for most people, uncontrollable– which is why determining how they are used as an expression of power is vital.

Foucault, Madness and Civilization

I am rereading the first three chapters of Madness and Civilization, a book that I had a mildly antagonistic relationship to when I read it two years ago. While I can’t say my feelings have changed, I did notice a lot of things that I hadn’t realized on my first reading. What I take as Foucault’s mission statement here is that when madness was classified as a mental illness in the eighteenth century, this created a gulf between madness and reason which did not exist prior to this. He is attempting to write “the archaeology of that silence” which exists because modern psychiatry has ignored the things that exist between madness and reason, the kinds of language and identification which was prevalent prior to the eighteenth century. In his view, medieval madness is a mystical experience that only rarely crosses over into a medical problem. This is, in my opinion, an essential misunderstanding.

The Stone of Madness | ScienceBlogs
Bosch, The Extraction of the Stone of Madness

I was so annoyed at Foucault’s characterization of the medieval period in 2019 that I wrote this (the clip I mention is in reference to Michael Camille’s 1996 guest interview on This American Life):

In sending me this twenty-plusyear-old audioclip,my friend unknowingly provided me with the perfect way to express my frustration with Madness and Civilization: it is an unintentional record of modern ideas about the medieval period that borrows from twentieth-century conceptions of the Middle Ages without reflecting on the fact that it is doing so. Like Medieval Times,it is a collection of the ways we think about the Middle Ages today,a thought experiment in the weirdness of the modern period as distinct from, but also similar to, the medieval.

In addition to stressing an irreversible shift from banishment to confinement that happens between the medieval and early modern period, Foucault never defines what madness is, and conflates madness and folly.

It is both a haunting precursor to the apocalypse and a foolish affect that can’t be the focus of fascination and can’t be taken seriously. Is it intellectual disability? Is it mania? Is there any point in trying to compartmentalize it, or must it be approached in the way Foucault does it: as a sweeping category that can mean whatever he wants it to mean?

To be clear, I still stand by my point. However, on rereading there were a number of interesting things that Foucault brings up which I want to know more about. The first of these is his argument that in the fourteenth century, the figure of the leper is replaced (in terms of its societal function) with the figure of the madman. Given that lepers were seen as having too much melancholy humor (cf Rawcliffe), I think this transition is a really interesting one and also not as medically drastic as Foucault seems to believe. He also states that in the late middle ages, madness ceased to become a statement about one’s unpreparedness for the apocalypse (people are mad not to prepare), and became a sign that the end of the world is coming. He places this at the time just before the “dawn of the renaissance” when things became too burdened with signs, so much so that they lose their own form; humans and animals become nondistinct from each other, because the straightforward religious significations of animals have given way to embodiments of madness without secure meaning (18). I am very interested in why he believes this, but tragically there is not a note. His interest in the apocalypse continues, though, and he argues that apocalyptic imagery changes in a formative way in the fifteenth century from a standard story with God at its heart to a proliferation of madness. Madness and the end of the world are entwined, which is a fascinating statement but again, I have no idea where it comes from.

At the same time, medieval madness is dark but not complicated: “all within it is brilliant surface” (25). Men who seek knowledge too seriously go mad not because they are serious, but because their work doesn’t mean anything. Madness is all around in the world but it is men who are susceptible to it, a convention which is shared by spiritual understandings of madness (cf Fowler, M,M &M). In Foucault’s words, “Madness deals not so much with truth and the world, as with man and whatever truth about himself he is able to perceive” (27). This is a medieval attitude, but it’s late medieval, and he pushes to have it attributed to the renaissance. In either case, he characterizes medieval madness as both simple and cosmic, “out there”, before it comes to rest inside people. The seventeenth century is the crucial shift at which madness ceases to be tragic, and instead becomes a moral problem of “unreason”. In other words, madness stops being a conduit for divine knowledge and starts simply being a problem.

The main thing I still want to understand, and still don’t get, is what Foucault means by the overlap of madness and reason before the eighteenth century. If it’s because madness is a kind of knowledge, I don’t completely agree, but I think he comes around to complicating this anyway in his assertion that learned men don’t actually know anything. But his account seems to ignore all medieval discourses about reason and what it means to be reasonable. I think what he actually means is that madness begins to be classified; each disparate kind of madness has its own solution and begins to be confined within it. This ignores the entire history of medieval neurological/emotional treatment, in which different kinds of madness are classified and treated differently. As my notes say, “he wants material conditions to work as metaphors for the popular view of madness”, and they just don’t. Reason tames madness because we are in the age of reason now, and pre-reasonable societies couldn’t have confined mad people or treated them as ill rather than uniquely knowledgeable.

Foucault wants so badly to create a break between fifteenth and sixteenth/seventeenth century understandings of madness, and it just doesn’t work. Avicenna’s translations and Burton’s Anatomy (600 years apart) speak to each other in similar ways. Foucault interestingly does not mention madness getting treated with more respect in the EM, as melancholy does for some people when it is aestheticized; aestheticization rather seems to be the medieval issue that is solved by rationality in the seventeenth century. For obvious reasons, while Foucault brings up some interesting threads here that I’d like to know more about, I can’t help but disagree with him.

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