Monday, January 9, 2012

Book Review: Picture Theory by WJT Mitchell

“the ability to differentiate and connect the trivial and the tragic, the insignificant and the monumental, is precisely what is at issue in the critique of art, violence, and the public sphere. Above all, the relations of literal and figurative violence, of violence by and against persons, and violence by and against images, can only be measured at the risk of trivializing the monumental and vise versa.” ---W. J. T. Mitchell.

We are, once again, at that most boring of blog activities, the review of the theory-based textbook. To the many, many readers/lurkers who state their favor of the blog but confess to skipping all such posts, I can merely offer an apology for dashing hopes and wasting time, and a promise that there will be something about comic books or comical misadventures in the near future. The theory-based book review is honestly something that's generally more for my own purposes; after spending weeks doggedly plowing through this book's 400+ pages, I want to step back and take stock, and see if I actually learned anything. Standard theory book review outline: introduction, outline, response, tangential relation to videogame theory. Fun!

One of the goodreads reviews (okay, the only goodreads review) likens reading the book to walking in on a conversation that's already in progress, where both people are deliberately trying to exclude you from the conversation with "hoity-toity", art-ridden discussions. Ignoring the second half of that statement for the moment, the "conversation in progress" part is pretty spot-on. In fact, Mitchell is basically having a conversation with the arguments his past self made in his previous book, Iconology. Where Iconology is all about how the image/text difference is used to further ideological perspectives, Picture Theory is more generally about the way pictures and images can be used to produce theory. (As you might have guessed from the title.) He pursues this goal through five sections: Picture Theory, Textual Pictures, Pictorial Texts, Pictures and Power, and Pictures and the Public Sphere.

Picture Theory is the most theory-laden section, as it introduces Mitchell's general argument. The first essay compares totalizing art theory ala Erwin Panofsky to totalizing interpolation theory ala Althusser, in a way that at least manages to suggest that the two have something to offer each other. The second essay, "Metapictures" gets right into the thick of things, with six examples of pictures that somehow refer to pictures, the examples ranging from MAD magazine to Poussin's Et in Arcadia Ego. It does a lot better job demonstrating how the picture theory thing works than the other chapter, to be honest. The third essay of the section, "Beyond Comparison," argues that this picture theory approach is superior to the comparative method, and that the correct term for the objects of study is imagetext, since all texts involve images, and all images text, even if the connection is just figure-heavy. It's a nice blend of the two previous essays, combining the first's theory-laden approach with some examples, as in the second.

The second section is about the appearance of pictures in text. Thus the first essay "Visual Language: Blake's Art of Writing" is all about how Blake approaches the issue of image and text, in terms of his representations of scrolls and books, and the role of writing. Good for Blake scholars, though personally I found it a little more difficult to judge its merits. Chapter 5 looks at Ekphrasis as a figure of Otherness. For those less poetically inclined, Ekphrasis refers to the textual description of a image. Mitchell argues that approaching the image in textual description turns it into a dangerous, feminine other, and demonstrates with Shelley's poem, "On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci." Next is "Narrative, Memory, and Slavery," an essay that argues that the American Slave Narrative is an attempt to place into memory that which can't be entirely articulated, or even entirely remembered. His big text here is Toni Morrison's Beloved, and, honestly, I couldn't help thinking that a fictional account of dealing with the moral detritus of slavery is not quite the same thing as a slave narrative. It still makes some good points, though.

Section Three focuses on image media, and their representation in theory. The first chapter of the section looks at modernist abstract painting, and how, despite being supposedly beyond words, they relied on academic and art discourse to situate and grant their contextual meaning. Interesting, but a bit too far out of my realm of expertise to really engage me. Next, we move into postmodern art and the installation pieces (among other things) of Robert Morris. Morris is especially distrustful of the way the label acts on and limits a work of art, and Mitchell argues that what Morris' work is really doing is opening a space for people to argue over the meaning of the work--it participates in a language game, to borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein. And Chapter 9 looks at the photoessay, and how it establishes a relationship between photography and the journalistic essay. It used four pieces: Agee and Evans' And Now We Will Praise Famous Men, Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, Malek Alloula's Colonial Harem, and Said and Moht's Exile and Return. I really liked the essay; perhaps more than any other, it got me thinking about what the juxtaposition of image and text has to offer a critic, in terms of composition, if not as primary source. It did suffer a bit from the topics being so disparate; Mitchell has to jump from the colonial south to mother depictions to colonialism to Palestine. (All right, the jump between the last two isn't particularly far.)

Section IV brings the notion of image and power directly on to the table, and introduces a new set of distinctions. Ch 10 is "Illusion: Looking at Animals Looking." Mitchell discusses accounts of animals being fooled into thinking human pictures are real. "Illusion" is the term he uses for being fooled into mistaking something false for reality; "illusionism" is the term for the general capacity of images to create the illusion. Ch 11 is about realism, which he defines as the capacity of images to show something purported to be true; he argues here against Nelson Goodman, whom he characterizes as being about irrealism--the view that it is impossible to depict reality--to a fault.

And that, at long last, brings us to the final section. It looks at pictures in the public sphere. Chapter 12 looks at violence and the public art piece, in the context of the goddess statue constructed on Tinanamen Square, and Spike Lee's movie "Do the Right Thing." The final chapter looks at the blend of spectacle and paranoia in the media's portrayal of the Gulf War and in Oliver Stone's JFK movie. And then we get a nice wrap-up.

what did I think? The book settles into this odd place between the anthology and the single-author book. It's not quite focused enough to build to any sort of conclusion, theory-wise. But at the same time, there's enough connections between chapters that it couldn't really be called a collection of 13 disparate essays either. There's also a lot of underlying themes here; race comes into the foreground in some essays (especially the Spike Lee one) but is usually content to simmer on the backburner, and the sexuality issue gets mentioned a lot, but never quite takes center stage. A lot of the essays feel stretched too thin, and in general, there seems to be more breadth than depth. I suspect that this is exactly what Mitchell wanted; breadth shows the potential extent of his image-focused basis.

In terms of what's useful for me, a lot of the later essays in particular are too specific to their topic to really be transferable to a videogame discussion. I feel like the single most useful concept (or at least most interesting) is ekphrasis, but only if stretched to its absolute extreme definition, as a description of actions or images. In that case, my study of Lost Odyssey in particular can be cast in a very different light. The chapter on photography as a truth-telling device can be applied to my study of photography in videogames, although it's not really shedding anything relevatory on the subject. And the terminology in the latter sections may be a good thing for videogame discussion--the difference Mitchell draws between illusionism and realism in particular adds a bit of nuance to the graphics realism question. I particularly liked the comparison he drew that prompted my quotation. In context, he's responding to the imagined complaint that comparing a Spike Lee movie to Tinanmen Square trivializes the people who died at the latter, but the point is clearly meant to apply to his endeavor at large, his frequent mixing of classically high and low media subjects. Mitchell essentially argues that to dismiss the trivial from the monumental and vice versa is to do an injustice to both by segregating them to separate fields of human behavior. As a videogame studies scholar, I support an argument calling for the study and inclusion of what may seem, on an initial glance, to be trivial. Monument or trivium, both are just reflections of the meanings humans place in them.

Final verdict, then: its scattered lack of focus and its breadth over depth approach make it a little more disappointing (and a bit more of a slog) than its predecessor book Iconology, but Picture Theory is still a must-read for those doing anything in the visual rhetoric field.

Later Days.

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