Author Archive

Oh Dr Johnson

February 11, 2009

Gell is eager to visualize his complex theories in more straightforward equations, but I couldn’t help wondering to what extent his equations of agency rely on a certain level of cultural knowledge. He rejects Morphy contention that objects are sign-vehicles conveying meaning, and yet it seems we have to know them as such before we can draw the conclusions Gell makes. This struck me particularly with relation to his Samuel Johnson example.

Gell suggests that Reynolds’ portrait of Dr Johnson is a good example of a case where the prototype of the index is itself causal of the recipient/spectator’s response – the artist is only a mediator of this causal flow:
[[[Prototype-A] -> Artist-A] -> Index-A] —> Recipient P]
The portrait is not recognized as ‘a great Reynolds painting’ so much as ‘an icon of Dr Johnson’ – Reynolds is not seen as responsible for Dr Johnson’s appearance so much as Dr Johnson himself.

At the simplest level, to develop the equation above requires a deep contextual knowledge of Dr Johnson and his prominence as a cultural figure in Britain. Outside of Britain, I doubt Dr Johnson has the fame or notoriety for one to conclude that it was his agency acting upon the artist (rather than the reverse) that shaped the content of the index (painting). Thus one could rearrange the equation above in any number of ways for different social groups – depending for example on their prior knowledge of Samuel Johnson or their attitudes towards portrait painting.

But more interestingly, in Britain it is this very image of that has come to be recognised as Samuel Johnson. Any other portrait would not be so quickly identified. In this sense, Reynolds’ agency upon the index has been so great as to set the ‘face of Dr Johnson’ for posterity. One could argue that the agency of the index has converged with that of the British public (the recipients) to act upon a passive prototype (Dr J) to the extent that they have decided the appearance of Dr J. In Britain then, the equation might be more like:
[[[Artist-A] ->Index-A] -> Recipients-A] —> Prototype P]