Mitchell, Malakulan dance, St. Celilia


Mitchell wants to put to images “a question of desire rather than meaning or power” (9), yet he acknowledges that he has “continually circled back to the procedures of semiotics, hermeneutics, and rhetoric” (46). Indeed, I read his discussions of Dolly and the World Trade Center as being, despite the framework of desire, so unavoidably about meaning and power, about what each image represents (e.g. the clone stands for “subtle horror along with a more utopian prospect” [23]) and what it has the capacity to do (e.g. the clone can “activate the deepest phobias about mimesis, copying, and the horror of the uncanny double” [25]). This is not to detract from Mitchell’s project–he certainly recognizes that what he can hope to achieve is not a complete elimination of interpretation, but rather a “subtle dislocation in the target of interpretation” (46), and even to do this is to offer us a great deal with which to work. But I wonder what might help us take his project of ‘critical idolatry’ even further, how to attempt other ways of giving pictures what they want–“an idea of visuality adequate to their ontology” (47).

The crux of our inability seems to be the imposition of the framework of language when we want to address the visual, as Mitchell suggests (47). “Vision…is not reducible to language, to the ‘sign,’ or to discourse. Pictures want equal rights with language, not to be turned into language” (47). Last Wednesday we were asking about the kinds of art for which Gell’s reading works, with Mateusz questioning whether Gell attends (or can be made to attend) to dance beyond its formal characteristics as rendered in a diagram (see Gell 94-95). Consider the different discussions we would have whether presented with Malakulan dance as Gell presents it:

…or as this (the closest I could find, I acknowledge methodological sloppiness here):

I’m wondering how thinking through music might offer help for how to attend to the non-linguistic without subsuming it to the linguistic. Considering certain kinds of music, along with corresponding historical moments in its theory, might place in us a position in which recourse to the linguistic is disabled, or at least seriously complicated, by the music’s capacity to confound representational structures. I’m recalling the way that Pels writes of the fetish — “the fetish shows the limits of representation by disrupting the continuity of reference and replacing it by a substitution (not a re-presentation but a presentation of something else)” (114) — and suggesting that music (and theoretical discussions of music) offer a way to render this disruption more explicit.

I’m thinking in particular about the concept of absolute music (i.e., non-representational music, see the wikipedia entry) and, in connection to this, the Heinrich von Kleist story “St. Cecilia, or the Power of Music,” of which I was reminded by Mitchell’s discussion of the symmetry between iconoclasm and idolatry. In Kleist’s story, four iconoclast Protestant brothers intend to smash the idols at a Catholic church to expose what they see as the emptiness of worshiping representational forms. Upon arriving at the church, however, they are overcome by the song of the nuns, in which — it strikes the brothers — any attempt to distinguish form from content is rendered meaningless. This music confronts them not a sign that represents something beyond itself, but rather it disrupts their capacity to imagine a space between sign and signified. The brothers emerge from this experience as iconophile Catholics with a newfound understanding of the ontology of Catholic icons — perhaps, we could say, a newfound attentiveness to what these icons want.


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