Some Thoughts on Mitchell

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I found a number of helpful moments in W.J.T. Mitchell’s freewheeling discussion of desiring and living images, which offered me a broader perspective to balance out Gell’s rigorous and focused theoretical work. (To me, the sections of Mitchell’s book that we were assigned had the feel of a collaborative effort––evinced by the frequent (and often informal) references to the works and comments of other academics across a broad spectrum of disciplines, as well as the FAQ-coda to the second chapter. A nice demonstration of the productive, interdisciplinary model of research that comes out of the theoretical turn we are studying.)

1. After some frustrations with what I consider Gell’s lack of historical specificity, I was happy to encounter Mitchell paraphrasing Marx so: “if people make images that seem to have lives and desires of their own, they do not always do it in the same way, nor under conditions of their own choosing […] How does [the phenomenon of the living image] change over time, and from one culture to another? And why does it impress itself so forcibly on our attention at this specific historical moment?” (11). I think this is an important series of points, though I am less convinced by Mitchell’s treatment of the two specific images he uses as examples. His discussion of Dolly and the burning World Trade Center seem more focused on the complex discourses surrounding these figures than the actual images themselves. Following the Marx comment, I expected a more serious assessment of the contemporary modes of image (re)production, circulation, and mass reception. It seems to me that the ubiquitous image-saturation of our contemporary media networks already makes a ceaseless mockery of the remaining iconoclasts of our world.

2. Mitchell states explicitly an assumption (which I believe he shares with Gell): that “the phenomenon of the living image or animated icon is an anthropological universal” (11). Are these sorts of universalist claims something we’re all comfortable with or convinced by? At least Mitchell leaves open an historical and cultural variability in the status, selection, and potency of living, “wanting” pictures.

3. I was very convinced by Mitchell’s discussion of “double consciousness,” in which all people are understood to vacillate “between magical beliefs and skeptical doubts, naïve animism and hardheaded materialism, mystical and critical attitudes” (7). Mitchell develops from this understanding some wonderful catachrestic formulations for the intellectual position of the academic/critic: “critical idolatry” or “secular divination” (26). There is a productive subtlety and tension to this that I did not find in the fetishist stance taken up by many of the writers in the Border Fetishisms volume.

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