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Francis Reynolds: An Interview with W. J. T. Mitchell

April 29, 2009

Francis Reynolds

(Part 1)

University of Chicago professor W. J. T. Mitchell’s work touches on a wide range of topics, from renaissance painting to Spike Lee, from cloning to Abu Ghraib. A leading image theorist and editor of the interdisciplinary journal Critical Inquiry, Mitchell is also the author of several books, including Picture Theory, The Last Dinosaur Book, and, most recently, What do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. In anticipation of Mitchell’s April 1st lecture in Portland, Oregon at the Pacific Northwest College of Art entitled “The Future of the Image,” Guernica’s Francis Reynolds spoke with him by phone about stereotypes, the presidential campaign, and the legacy of the “war on terror.”

**Francis Reynolds**: Professor Mitchell, you are a leading theorist in the study of what has come to be known as “visual culture” and, if I understand correctly, you have often argued that images and pictorial and verbal representations shape, and in a sense create, the world we inhabit. How does this occur?

**W. J. T. Mitchell**: Well, it occurs in many different ways simultaneously: through television most obviously, cinema, iconic photographs of important historical events, and in the perceptions of everyday life. It’s not just the media, but also the immediate circumstances of everyday encounters. New people moving into your neighborhood, participating in mass spectacles, for instance the year of presidential campaigning in this country, much of which involved human beings gathered in unprecedented numbers in mass gatherings.

So all of these things, I think, together produce a visual culture, which is specific, sometimes, to a country, but can also have international impacts, which we saw when Barack Obama arrived in Berlin, it immediately recalled the great spectacle of Jack Kennedy going to Berlin back in the sixties. So it’s both a national and international phenomenon, partly carried by media, but not only by media.

**FR**: And how are images an indispensable part of our lives, how is that visual culture created?

**Mitchell**: I think they’re indispensable because we live in a visible world. And also it isn’t just vision, it’s a question of symbolic forms, symbolic figures. It can be a thing like a name, and, if I can come back to the Obama example again, the symbolic resonance of Obama’s name is part of what makes him an icon. And of course the opposition to him tried to capitalize on that by continually insisting on his middle name, pronouncing the name Hussein, which of course happened to be the name of the archenemy in Iraq.

So, images, I want to say at the outset, are not only visual. They’re also auditory, they involve sensuous impressions, bundles of information that come to us through our senses, and mainly through seeing and hearing: the audio-visual field.

So, those are the raw materials of judgment, reasoning, thinking, consciousness, and of course unconsciousness, since we also have, human beings have hyperactive fantasy lives. The images that get produced and stay there in our sensorium – that is, the audio-visual field – keep resonating. Some of them are quite traumatic, some of them are quite dramatic, that is, they produce a cathexis, or an attraction, so that we fall in love with some images, we are dazzled by others, astonished by some, and they are the raw material of what makes a culture and a society operate.

**FR**: And much of your work deals with the very concept of the image. Because images can move from one medium to another, as, for example, a still picture can be animated, or a description in a book can be recast in sculpture, you argue that images make up a kind of “meta-medium” that cannot be contained within any “specific material incarnation.” Could you explain this idea?

**Mitchell**: I’ll try. I think it’s an idea that is in one sense very old. That is, it’s part of the fundamental ontology of images that they can move from one medium to another, so that the image in a painting – say, a renaissance painting – almost invariably comes from text, so it had to cross a border between language and vision. And part of recognizing what a picture is about, looking at it and saying, “Oh, that’s a crucifixion,” or saying “That’s the parting of the Red Sea,” or any other historical event, part of that is recognizing that a translation has occurred from one medium to another, that you know the scene from language and now you see it in a visual form, or vice versa, this can happen the other way as well, that a visual image then acquires a name, a description, a narrative, it produces a translation.

So I think its a fundamental feature of images that they move from one medium to another. And this has become hyper-evident in our time with the computer, which is a kind of master-medium also and allows us to transfer data of all kinds from one platform to another, turning sounds into sights or language into image. The computer has made something that is very old evident in a new way.

**FR**: That’s interesting. And your most recent book is called What do Pictures Want?, and in that book, when discussing Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled, you write that, “The stereotype is an especially important case of the living image because it occupies [a] middle ground between fantasy and technical reality, a more complexly intimate zone in which the image is, as it were, painted or laminated directly onto the body of a living being…”(1) So what role do images such as stereotypes play in social and political contexts?

**Mitchell**: Well, they play an absolutely essential role. And I know stereotypes have a bad reputation, people say, “Oh, you shouldn’t stereotype people,” but I think it’s important to recognize that we couldn’t function in the world without stereotypes. Think of the simplest possible example of this: the stereotype of gender. We segregate men from women, and no matter how many times we insist that men and women are equal, men and women should be treated the same, when it comes to the moment of excretion, even the most modern society – especially the most modern society – segregates two restrooms with little icons outside the doors, one wearing a dress, one wearing pants. (Unisex toilets are definitely coming on, however, as the cool way to go). As the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said, this is the fundamental structure of the sign itself, it’s the moment of differentiation. And stereotypes are ways of making extremely primitive and simple differentiations. Differentiations of gender, race, class, social status – so ordinary social life is very much built upon a whole repertoire of stereotypes we carry around. And those are immediately laminated onto people, and it isn’t just visual.

So stereotypes, I want to say, have to be thought of not just as these invidious, bad things that we could get rid of, but as images that we cannot get rid of, that we have to live with. And obviously invidious and prejudicial stereotypes need to be deconstructed and overcome, but it’s not that they can be destroyed. I think that would be an illusion to think that we can somehow get rid of these basic search templates that allow us to sort out our social lives and to sort out the material world as well.

Think about the biologist operating in the field and trying to sort out the incredible variety of life forms. To be able to tell an oak leaf from an elm you have to have a stereotype, you have to have a what’s sometimes called a species sample. The species itself is a kind of image, a way of sorting out the amazing variety of impressions that we have. So, I see stereotypes as fundamental and inescapable and not as something that is… The kind of common view is “Oh, we shouldn’t think in stereotypes,” and I think the reality is we can’t help but think in stereotypes.

**FR**: The example of the biologist in the field is an interesting one, because you talk about the will to objectivity or objectivism, trying to create categories in which all elements of life can fall, and you describe that as one of the theoretical underpinnings of empire, this idea that the human subject can understand everything before it. So you think that is not necessarily always a dangerous impulse?

**Mitchell**: I think it becomes a dangerous impulse when it gets attached to power and prejudice. That is, that the reality that you’re describing is something you think is subject to you and you can control and take power over, and also when its regarded as a set of bad objects that you must get rid of, destroy, eliminate from the world. So, my argument about imperialism, which of course has a very, very long history, it’s not just a nineteenth century phenomenon but something that goes deep into human history. Imperialism, or the conquest and colonization of other populations, other peoples, has had as one of its side effects the growth of a discourse of objectivity. That is, when you encounter something new, something strange, something different, you have to find categories for it, you have to come to terms with new objects. So, I distinguish between that impulse – which seems to me part of human reason and a generally beneficial aspect of human consciousness – from what I call objectivism, where you are convinced that only you have the truth, you have nothing to learn from the other, but science and truth are on your side, so you can afford to just assimilate any new thing to a familiar category.

The great moment I think in human consciousness is when you realize that the object in front of you is perhaps not nameable or is new, it does not fit a stereotype, and so you need to reconfigure your whole structure of knowledge to account for it. This is Thomas Kuhn’s great insight about scientific research, that the moment of paradigm shift occurs when scientists perceive an anomaly, something doesn’t fit, they don’t have the right template for it or stereotype, so it requires not just the invention of a new category, but often the reconfiguration of an entire way of thinking to accommodate that anomaly.

I think it’s very important to distinguish between objectivity – which tends to be open, flexible, skeptical of its own certainty and open to new information – and objectivism – which thinks, “No, we know it all, we’ve got it, so real thinking and learning can come to an end.” Objectivism is basically the same thing as faith-based science or for that matter faith-based foreign policy, where you start out with the assumption “We are good, they are evil,” or “We know what is good and right and we know what is wrong,” so all questions are settled in advance by a set of ideological prejudices. That’s objectivism and I think it’s the same formation basically as fundamentalism.

**FR**: So in your mind, stereotypes can and do shift and change, and so the question is less getting rid of stereotypes but working to see what doesn’t fit – what doesn’t fit within the stereotypes – and shifting them based on that?

**Mitchell**: Right, understanding their limitations, that a stereotype is like a species category but species categories have to deal with the fundamental reality, which is made up of specimens. And that distinction between species and specimen is very much like the distinction between images and actual pictures, or, you know, objects that have a definite material identity. The classifications, the categories, the stereotypes, and the images are on one side, and the material pictures, statues, texts, and so forth are on the other.

So it’s important to remember there’s a dialectic between species – the categories – and the specimens – the actual living things – and good scientists recognize this. They don’t assume to start with that the specimen they have is necessarily an instance of the species they bring to it. That’s a question, an empirical question rather than a certainty. So the good scientist is most excited when they find a specimen that doesn’t fit any of their species stereotypes, because that’s a moment when something new comes into the world and you have the thrilling moment of saying “We’ve discovered a new species, there’s a new image out there we didn’t know that existed and it has a lot of relatives that we need to learn about as well.”

Read the second part of this interview tomorrow on “Guernica”:https://www.guernicamag.com/’s “blog”:https://www.guernicamag.com/blog/

(1) Mitchell, What do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) 295.

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