Threatened by the imageless image
interview with W.J.T.Mitchell

Issue no2
April - May 2019
Magisch Realisme

There seems to be no end to the stream of publications about 9/11. From Jacques Derrida to T.J. Clark, Slavoj Zizek to Paul Virilio and Jean Beaudrillard to Susan Buck-Moss: the entire intellectual elite wants to speak their piece about the meaning of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the ensuing war on terror. W.J.T. (Tom) Mitchell, Gaylord Donnelly Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History aan de University of Chicago and editor of the leading publication Critical Enquiry, is also working on a book on this charged subject: Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to Abu Graib.


Mitchell speaks of his approach as 'iconological', calling to mind associations with the - nowadays seen as somewhat old fashioned - art historical tradition put forward by Erwin Panofsky. Mitchells approach doesn’t seem to fit this bill however: his place in the art historical field can hardly be called traditional. On the contrary, he continuously tries to approach his subjects from new and unsuspected angles. In Picture Theory (1996) for example, he tried to establish a pictorial turn in the academic world, arguing that a too linguistic interpretation of images hinders "visual literacy".

Mitchell’s ‘iconological’ studies always aim to be groundbreaking, which occasionally causes resentment under art historians, who feel chided. His publications however remain ever fascinating because of Mitchell's relentless efforts to keep looking at visual culture and its meanings from fresh perspectives.

—Margriet SchavemakerThe question that forces itself to the forefront when looking at your publications at a distance is how you pick your topics and how they relate to each other?

"There are very few boundaries that I cannot transgress"

—Tom MitchellAs an iconologist rather than an art historian, my field is the domain of images across the media, including literature and language as well as scientific discourse and the visual arts. This means that there are very few boundaries that I cannot transgress in search of interesting material. As for how I pick the topics: often I feel that they pick me. An image calls out to me, addresses me, intrigues me, and I want to follow it wherever it leads.

—Margriet Schavemaker In your opinion, does ‘high art’ ask for a different scholarly approach than other visual media such as film and TV?

—Tom MitchellI don’t think there is any difference in scholarly approach. An iconologist has to take images as they come. Of course that involves an understanding of their location, point of production and mode of consumption. You will have to take into account the social and aesthetic status of the image in question. With ‘image’ I mean works of art, products of mass culture, or ordinary functional images such as the images of sexual identity on lavatories or the icons on a computer desktop. Iconology’s relation to the world of visual art is something like the relation of linguistics to literature. Iconology addresses the entire field of visual (and verbal) images, of which the realm of artistic images is a small and distinct subfield. Every art historian who claims to know the difference between artistic and non-artistic images, between “high art” and mass culture, is already tacitly invoking a general field of iconology within which such distinctions can be made.

—Margriet SchavemakerYou also write about the necessity to pay attention to ‘what pictures want’. What do pictures want?

—Tom MitchellPictures want many different things. There is no single answer, any more than there would be a single answer to what women want (the question that, obviously, inspired the question of the desire of images). Sometimes the answer is: they want to be seen, admired, loved, even worshipped. Some pictures (like religious icons) want to be kissed and (or more drastically) consumed, and internalized mentally. Others want to kiss us, and take us in, so that we become “part of the picture”. Some images (idols, for instance) want a human sacrifice. Fetishes want to become part of us, as if they were a missing part of our incomplete selves. Totemic images demand communal allegiance. And then there are pictures—most notably certain kind of art works—that seem to “want nothing” in the sense that they need nothing, lack nothing, and express a kind of autonomous completeness in themselves.

—Margriet SchavemakerCurrently you are working on a book concerning the impact of 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror on visual culture. What is your angle on this topic?

"This war is a “cure” that actually makes the disease worse"

—Tom MitchellI treat the war on terror as an image or metaphor in itself, one that has been literalized and actualized with horrific results. I investigate the ways in which war and terror are conducted by means of images, and especially by acts of “creative destruction” of images, or spectacles of iconoclasm. I also want to analyze the emergence of new technologies of image production and circulation that accompany the war on terror, what I call the “biodigital picture,” exemplified by cloning. The title of the book will be Cloning Terror, and it will deal with the way that the war on terror has the effect of “cloning” or accelerating the proliferation of terrorist “cells”, spreading terrorism in a way that is inevitably compared to a virus or cancer. This war is a “cure” that actually makes the disease worse, creating what Derrida called an “autoimmune disorder” in which the body politic attacks its own constitution. The aim of my book is to describe and diagnose this situation, and to understand the way in which terrorists and clones have become uncanny, monstrous doubles in contemporary political fantasies.

—Margriet SchavemakerWhat do you think of the ways in which visual artists have responded to the theme of 9/11?

"9/11 has been so fetishized as an apocalyptic moment"

—Tom MitchellMy sense is that 9/11 has been so fetishized as an apocalyptic moment, and has been so resistant to a proper process of mourning and commemoration, that there is still no comprehensive verbal or visual image to put it in perspective. The failure to provide an adequate memorial to the World Trade Center is symptomatic in this regard. The bad luck of having George W. Bush in the presidency at the moment of this catastrophe has meant the near-destruction of the American constitution over the last seven years, not to mention the destruction of America’s image abroad as a force for progress and freedom. Perhaps Karl -Heinz Stockhausen was right, and the only work of art to come out of 9/11 was the hideous spectacle itself, “Lucifer’s greatest work of art.” To me, the more interesting art works are the ones that try to deconstruct the war on terror, most notably the art works and political images based on the Abu Ghraib photographs. Also, the efforts of artists to regenerate a sense of democratic public space, and to engender a corresponding sense of critical, oppositional consciousness, I find of importance.

—Margriet SchavemakerI understand from this that you underwrite the avant-garde perspective on the role of art as being there for critical opposition and commemoration. As an iconologist I can imagine that it might also be inviting to look at the various ways visual artists, novelists, film- and television makers all play with the visual and literary ingredients that 9/11 and its aftermath provided us with.

—Tom MitchellAfter the initial reception of the images of 9/11, I think there was a kind of revulsion against recycling them endlessly, especially the images of falling bodies. It is as if the visual horror of the event was so overwhelming that its exploitation became a kind of pornography. Certain American politicians who used these images for their own gain paid a big price for it. It was seen as tasteless and obscene. On the other hand, the phrase “9/11,” and the spectre of terror as such - a kind of invisible and faceless enemy that is located nowhere and can strike anywhere without warning - is what I call an “imageless image.” It inspires a nameless dread and anxiety that is the negative form of the affect sometimes associated with the aesthetics of the sublime. Some of the more astute politicians - particularly Bush’s adviser, Karl Rove - understood this very well and encouraged Bush to invoke the spectre of terror constantly, as a primarily verbal image that could then be used to justify a suspension of the rule of law and to acquire absolute powers for the president. As any viewer of horror films knows, the longer the monster is kept out of sight, in the shadows, the more terror it inspires.

W.J.T.Mitchell will speak on Tuesday October 28th on the theme of 9/11 in relaton to art and visual culture as part of the lecture series ‘Now is the Time: Art and Theory in the 21st Century’ (Lutherse Kerk, Amsterdam, start: 20.00h). For more information and reservations visit www.nowisthetime.nl .
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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2019