Believe me: an image is more than it appears to be.
— Ovid, Heroides

Any attempt to essentialize what an ‘image’ is must inevitably make a highly speculative endeavor: restricted by neither border nor materiality, the static or the mute, there is simply no distinct or pure domain reserved for images alone. Certainly its visual quality comes closest to its character and, though far from given once the discussion turns to literary concerns, ‘seeing’ remains a constituent and source for almost all discourse on the nature of images. The affinity is suggested etymologically as well since ‘image’ means, among other things, ‘idea’ which stems from the Greek ‘to see’. Moreover, ‘image’ shares its root (‘ im- ‘) with ‘imitate’, thus linking ‘image’ to the act of imitation ( mimesis) and the making of a likeness, copy, picture, statue, semblance, phantom, conception, thought, similitude, shadow, or appearance–all synonyms for ‘image’ (OED). When the Ten Commandments attempted to regulate this habit of imitation by means of its command: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4), it exclaimed the remarkable power of images to copy not only things in the physical world but also the divine. By casting the gold, the molten calf appeared, and the people of Egypt soon confused the golden image with a sacred image. And therein lies the heart of the matter: an image attracts, deceives, imitates, resembles, replaces and animates. It is precisely this unruly behavior that renders an image so difficult to grasp.

The subjects of images can appear with a kind of immediacy, as if they materialize out of the blue (see Immediacy). Narcissus saw his own reflection on the water’s surface and, “mistaking a mere shadow for a real body,” he found himself spellbound by a “fleeting image” (Ovid 1955, 85). According to Aaron’s story to Moses, the golden calf appeared seemingly by itself. As if by magic, it “made itself” (Snyder 1995, 369). The immediacy of an appearance, its “Firstness,” is brought to the foreground in Charles Sanders Peirce’s notion of the iconic (‘icon’ means image, likeness, semblance). Though in no way limited to images, the iconic sign “may represent its object mainly by its similarity, no matter what its mode of being” (Peirce 1955, 105). The image, however conventional, may thus resemble what it aims to depict. This problematic yet seemingly irrefutable, representational likeness is the cause for much of the debate in the twentieth century regarding the supposed binaries of nature and convention, the natural and the semiotic attitude, illusion and representation, presence and absence, and the iconic versus the symbolic. The icon is seemingly linked to the world by way of an inextricable and inexplicable recognition between visuality, experience and image, a recognition that we may perhaps never fully apprehend.

The braiding and rivalry of “word and image” appear continuously throughout history. “The very phrase ‘word and image’ suggests that two different, perhaps incompatible things are to be shackled together” (Bal 1991, 27). Socrates compared writing to painting so as to show its lifelike attributes yet complete lack of a voice. Like illegitimate children the marks detach from their source; like seeds they disseminate and depreciate by way of abundance. The visual script duplicates, becoming independent from its original, and these bastard children (image and writing) thus find their rank well below the spoken word (Plato 1937). The word and image opposition and sisterhood continued with Leonardo da Vinci’s paragone and, in the eighteenth century, with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (see Ut pictura poesis). In his Imagines (or ‘Eikones’) the Greek sophist Philostratus the Elder plays with the pun of word and image in his ekphrases (or ‘narratives’), intertwining the two not only via the verbal description of a visual image, but also with his chosen word: ‘grapha’, meaning both text and painting (see graphic). Philostratus’ words mediate the spectator’s view of an image, but his words are based on his seeing or having seen an image (Philostratus [1931] 2000). The “nesting” of word and image is thus in constant play. Giorgio Vasari and Johann Joachim Winckelmann continue the ekphrastic tradition, although in a rather different style, and so set the stage for the study of images: Art History.

But art history admits merely a few, select images and concerns itself, really, with a spectacularly minute fraction of the vast field of existent imagery. Maps, stamps, “graphs, charts, technical and engineering drawings, scientific images of all sorts, schemata, and pictographic and ideographic elements in writing” all flock the domain of images (Elkins 1999, 3-4). These are material images, or ‘pictures’ (Mitchell 1986) (see picture). The “art-world pentagon” of collector, dealer, critic, curator and artist assume engagement with tangible images as well, and often with a clear specificity of medium. This reification of the medium extends to most institutions of art: museum, gallery, art academy, and university. By means of a range of cultural settings, a fusion of media and a difference in premise, visual and cultural studies cross the borders of disciplines and types of imagery, at times causing quite a stir and interference in tradition.

Where Plato gave mimetic images an inferior position by marking the mediating line between true existence (Idea, the original) and images that copy things in the physical world (see Mimesis); in the postmodern age, Jean Baudrillard sees images as demons simulating each other and thus signifying without grounds in the real. Rather than seducing reality, “it is the pure strategy of the sign itself that governs the appearance of things” (Baudrillard 1993, 141). The image “bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum” (Baudrillard 1988, 170) [see Simulation, Simulacrum , (2)] The media effect of this surplus of imagery produces more floating images, as images, creating an artificial world of surfaces, a mediascape of signs. But as Régis Debray notes in “Images, Not Signs,” there is “no degeneration of the natural into the artificial, of the true into the false”; “it is a question of man’s relation to artifacts from the very beginning” (Debray 1996, 166).

Putting some order into things, perhaps we may view images as a collection, or a “family,” consisting of the following five categories: graphic, optical, perceptual, mental, and verbal (Mitchell 1986, 9-10). The first cluster, the graphic, is the one in which art history finds its images: pictures, that is, paintings, frescoes, prints (graphic, photographic, digital), and drawings as well as marks, signs, and script that convey visual information. Does sculpture belong here too, or is the collection reserved for images of a two-dimensional kind? ‘Statue’ is a synonym for image, but it is unclear how their relation can be established satisfactorily. The second group in the family are Optical images that appear via mirrors and projections and are not present to the eye without the use of physical action aiding sight. Optical media often employ light and screens: computer screens, television- and film screens. Perceptual images are, on the other hand, sense data and visual impressions as they appear to the ‘naked eye’ (such as an afterimage). But the naked eye is naturally always a product of neurological, physiological and psychological impact (see Senses). Perceptual images are the appearances that Aristotle describes as imprinting themselves on our minds like a wax tablet. They may also be the kind of images that Immanuel Kant sees as the result of apprehension as opposed to comprehension. And Gestalt psychology relies on perceptual imagery (perception as seeing and thinking) for their experiments. But what about the possibility of projecting virtual images directly onto the retina: are these optical and perceptual images? The fourth group, mental images, consists of dreams, memories, ideas and fantasmata (Mitchell 1986, 10). The faculty of memory stores an archive of images and produces, of course, a world of images as well [see Memory , (2)] The last group are Verbal images: figures of speech, similes and metaphors that seem to generate imagery in the mind’s eye and are often seen as a hostile intervention of one medium into another, especially in poetry. When we say “tree,” do we see an image of a tree mentally? Do we see the word “tree”? Or do we think of the concept without an image at all? Or is it a matter of “shifting and transforming . . . from one conceptual level to another”? (Mitchell 1996, 53). To Michel Foucault, we are dealing with “the inextricable tangle of words and image and . . . the absence of a common ground to sustain them” (Foucault 1983, 38-9). Knowledge, it seems, is formed by a “way of seeing and saying” in a constantly varying “composition and combination” (Deleuze 1986, 48). Adding a possible sixth category to the collection, a “sound image” entails Ferdinand de Saussure’s signifiant, sound as a signifier (see Voice, Sound). A general phonetic likeness in language invites phonological differences and the making of meaning. The utterance “tree” differs phonologically from “three,” and the sound is a sound image of the concept. But to Saussure, the arbitrary sound image is distinctly different from an image (Saussure 1966). Moreover, where do we place an “image-sound” caused by the interference–i.e., the image–from a second-channel radio signal? (OED) Is this an intervention of image into sound reminiscent of images interfering with words, or words with images?

The family of images described above shows not only the vast realm of imagery, but also the difficulty in capturing them in an essential category distinct from another. So what is not an image: an image is not unfiltered, noise-free access to the world. It is not simply lived experience unless that experience is in some form “set aside,” distanced, reproduced, or referred to in its absence by way of a semblance. To Hans Belting, the concept of an image only gains agency “when one speaks of the image and the medium as two sides of a coin, sides that are inseparable, even though they separate and mean separate things to the eye” (“Der Bildbegriff kann nur gewinnen, wenn man von Bild und Medium wie von den zwei Seiten einer Münze spricht, die man nicht voneinander trennen kann, auch wenn sie sich im Blick trennen und Verschiedenes bedeuten”; Belting 2001, 13). An image is not only in a physical medium (a body), or part of it (its face), it also acts as a mediator and screen between two subjects: the gaze and the subject of representation (Lacan [1981] 1998) (see Eye and Gaze). Overlooking the medium of an image evokes a sense of immediacy suggested by Peirce’s notion of the iconic, and the automatic closeness to the subject is perhaps–and perhaps paradoxically–the vital leap that animates the image. The people of Egypt wanted “something that was a calf, but wasn’t a calf at the same time, something that was unmistakably initiated by human hands . . . but which nonetheless remained inexplicable” (Snyder 1995, 370). Whether by means of a golden calf, a painting, photography, film, or virtual reality, the act of endowing an image with more than its making via the supposition or appearance of less mediation begins to look like a familiar social habit. An image becomes, then, the medium for “the irreplaceable materialization of kinds of experience” (Williams 1977, 162).

Kristine Nielsen
Department of Art History
Winter 2003


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