Skip to Content

Share

Francis Reynolds: An Interview with W. J. T. Mitchell (Part 2)

April 30, 2009

Francis Reynolds

(Part 2. Read Part 1 HERE)

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.”

**FR**: So you talk about how stereotypes, and images more broadly, structure how we view the world. So how can the realization that something does not fit into those molds come about if our reality is so structured by those images?

**Mitchell**: It’s a good question. Sometimes reality can’t break through. Sometimes we blind ourselves with a whole repertoire of stereotypes and the certainties that accompany them. So for instance… The discovery of the dinosaur was really a long, protracted process in which it was misrecognized repeatedly as something it was not, and often the transition into the recognition of something new involves a whole lot of stumbling and improvisation.

If you look at the first dinosaur models that were made in Victorian England, they look like huge turtles, big kangaroos, enormous ducks, they were, some of them were like rhinoceroses or hippopotamuses. Because, when people start to encounter something new they almost automatically apply old stereotypes to it. They try to adapt them, modify them slightly. What they didn’t realize was that the thing they were looking at was, it had to be reconstructed out of many different kinds of information, and so it took a hundred years or more to come a modern understanding of what the dinosaur was.

One of the great breakthroughs occurred in the 1960’s when scientists suddenly began to, it began to dawn on them, “We can’t be dealing with reptiles here.” For a long time they were thought of as reptiles, they said, “No, we can’t see them as reptiles anymore because it’s impossible for reptiles, cold blooded animals, to have that much energy, to be that big, to be that erect. We have to move to a new model, a new paradigm.” And suddenly they began looking at dinosaurs as birds and you see, there’s a kind of moment of seeing as, to look at x as y. That’s the critical moment of knowledge, and that’s the moment that a stereotype gets installed. So one stereotype replaced another: the dinosaurs were reptiles and they became birds, and this was a momentous scientific revolution, and it involved a slow trial and error correction of a prevailing model that lasted for almost a hundred years before it was finally overturned.

**FR**: So to change the topic slightly now, Baghdad’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison recently re-opened with a new name earlier this year. The prison closed in 2006 amidst international outcry over charges of torture and human rights abuses committed by the US military. So I was wondering, what were the images that came out of Abu Ghraib and how do they live on?

**Mitchell**: Well, I think almost everyone has seen at least a few of the images from Abu Ghraib and I think it’s very difficult to find anyone who does not recognize immediately the central, iconic photo, a photo sometimes called the hooded man, the man on the box, a picture taken actually by a couple of different digital cameras from different angles, but one of those photos became iconic, and it’s the frontal view of a man wearing a black hood and a black cloak standing on top of a box with wires attached to his hands and genitals. And of course the story that came with this, this photograph taken in October of 2003, the story is the man was told that if he tried to get down off the box, if he stepped on the floor, he would be electrocuted immediately.

Well, it turns out that this tableaux was the tip of an iceberg, it was the image that revealed an entire invisible structure of torture and detention that was being conducted by the US military and US intelligence services and not only in Iraq but in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere around the world. So it wasn’t just a singular event, it was a symbolic event and that image became the icon of the whole thing.

If you’ve looked further into these images you know there are over a thousand images of what are called the abuse photos at Abu Ghraib and they show a variety of things, from horrific pictures of bloody dead bodies, people beaten to death, to prisoners naked, stripped naked and being forced to assume mock sexual positions, piled, naked bodies piled on top of one another.

I think they actually were extremely important, and in some sense they spelled the end of the war in Iraq. Even though I know that many people were disappointed that they didn’t bring an immediate end, because, after all, the crucial message of those images was, this is basically what the war in Iraq has come to. The United States had lost it’s moral compass, lost its sense of legitimacy, and this war, which by that point, in 2004, it was well known there were no weapons of mass destruction, no link between the, between Iraq and al-Qaeda, known that Iraq had nothing to do with 911 and that the entire war was premised on a set of lies. But there was one thing left, and that was the moral alibi: we’ve come to Iraq to liberate the Iraqis, bring democracy, bring human rights, rescue them from tyranny. Well this body of images gave the lie to that whole alibi. So it spelled the moral end of this quasi-religious crusade that led us into Iraq.

Of course, there have been many ironies surrounding that particular iconic image of the hooded man on the box. For one thing, the reason the photo is iconic is it is not obscene and it has a vaguely sacred aura hovering around it, which I’ve talked about in some of my writings. The image has an uncanny resemblance to a whole set of icons of the passion of Christ. And it’s one of those great historical ironies that the image burst upon the public in the same month that Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was being released. So it’s an image that had quite a powerful effect. Of course it served as a recruiting poster for al-Qaeda and for Islamic fundamentalism, and it became a central icon in the anti-war movement as well. It is an image that is still being recycled, translated, reinterpreted in documentary films like Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure, Rory Kennedy’s The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. It’s an image that’s going to live on for quite a while.

**FR**: And you’ve actually been working on a book about the “war on terror”?

**Mitchell**: Yes.

**FR**: What draws you to the topic and what do you hope to explain about it?

**Mitchell**: Well, I hope to first just keep a memory and a historical record of what the war on terror was and also perhaps what it still is, since it’s a war that in some sense logically could never end. I also want to suggest that the war on terror, that phrase which you’ve just used, is itself an image. That is, it’s a metaphor, a figure of speech, because you can’t literally make a war on terror anymore than say you could make a war on anxiety or nervousness. How do you make a war on an emotion? So there’s a strange paradox about the very concept of the war on terror, namely, it’s merely an image, merely a figurative and even a kind of fantastic concept. If you asked yourself, how could we make a war on terror? Make a war on Iraq, but not on terror itself. And yet the fantasy has become real, the metaphoric has become literal, we did go to war and we continue to go to war in the name of fighting something we call terror, which is an abstraction, an emotion.

So, part of the point of my book is to show how images become real, how they take on a material, palpable effect in the real world of politics, war, and so forth. And you can see this happening very early on: a number of journalists challenged the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld and said, “Isn’t this idea of a war on terror just a metaphor, like the war on poverty? We didn’t mean that literally, we just meant that as a metaphor for maximum effort.” One of these principals (I’ve lost track of which one) said “Oh no, we don’t mean this literally, we mean it… or we don’t mean it figuratively, we mean it literally and the war on terror is no metaphor, it means real bombs, tanks, planes, etc.” So that’s kind of the central focus of the book: how did an imaginary concept get realized in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in highly embodied and actual destruction and death? How did this concept become a material thing? Then the other goal of the book is to gather up the image repertoire of the war on terror, it’s a kind of encyclopedic effort to say what were the punctuating moments. One of them was clearly Abu Ghraib, another, in fact the inaugural moment, was 911, the destruction of the world trade centers, which was not merely the destruction of a pair of buildings, but also the production of an iconic moment. The spectacle of destruction itself became an image that was indelibly engraved on millions of people’s memories. And then there are scores of other images that I will be talking about in the book from things like the capture of Saddam Hussein and the dental examination that went with him, the pulling down of his statues and the hooding of his statues with the American flag, many, many other images that punctuated this war in something like the way that the great image of World War II, the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi, the great photo op that Clint Eastwood discusses in flags of our fathers. Or that, the famous photo of Kim Phuc, the Vietnamese girl fleeing from her napalmed village, the way that became an icon of the futility of the Vietnam war. So that’s the idea of the book, is to look at the image repertoire of the war on terror, to some extent also the war in Iraq, and to try to make sense of it, to ask, what is the role of the image in this period we’ve gone through?

**FR**: Your upcoming talk is titled “The Future of the Image,” can you tell me a little about that?

**Mitchell**: The talk is looking at several different things. One is I’m doing a kind of comparison of my approach to images with that of a prominent French philosopher named of Jacques Rancière who has written a book called The Future of the Image. So, looking at the ways we approach the relation of images to works of art, the relation of images to language, and the relation of images to politics particularly. So that’s one part of it. Another aspect is to look at something that Rancière declines to do: he says he doesn’t want to deal with the long history of the image from the caves of Lascaux to the present twilight of digital and virtual images. So one of the things I decided to do in my account of the future of the image was to try to characterize that long panorama. You know, how could we think of the phenomenon of the image from the earliest instances we know about, say the paintings in the caves of Lascaux, right down to the contemporary phenomenon of the digital image? What would we find if we tried to look at that as one long panorama, an odyssey?

And to simplify it a bit I’m focusing mainly on the figure of the animal in the history of imagery. And, so, part of the paper is why we look at animals, why is the animal icon so important for thinking about the history of human involvement in images, and so the paper will deal with that as well.

**FR**: Do you make any statements about what the future of the image is?

**Mitchell**: Yes, there are a number of them. Probably the most important is the one that deals with the relation of animals and human beings. If you want to know what the future of image-making is, you need to look at what have been the imagined futures: what fantasies about the future of images have always been with us. And one of those, one of the leading fantasies is the idea of the living image. This starts easily with creation myths in which the deity is often portrayed as an artist, a sculptor, an image maker. And the human species and in fact all of the animals are treated as fabricated images. Certainly this is what the Judeo-Christian and Muslim creation myth… they all converge on the legend or the myth of Adam. Adam and Eve and the fabrication of them as sculptures, made out of the clay of the ground and life breathed into them. So this is one of the most consistent myths about images, that an image could exist that literally came alive. It’s not merely imagined to be alive but was actually made to be alive.

Well, the future of the image in our time, I think, is suggested by the phenomenon of cloning. Cloning has transformed not only our sense of what the potential horizons of biology are, but also the horizon of iconology, of image-production. What a clone is, technically, is simply a living copy of a living thing. It is a living image. So cloning has literalized this ancient dream, a dream you could see all the way from Adam and Eve all the way to the Jewish golem to Frankenstein’s monster, to robots in the modern era, cyborgs, replicants, this kind of idea has made its way into mass and popular culture. Hundreds of Hollywood films have been made about cloning since the early 1990s, and the basic premise is always the same: that the biological revolution that made, discovered the secret of life – DNA and the human genome – has made it possible, in principal, to artificially produce copies of living things. Clearly this is a huge controversy morally and politically: what does it mean to be able to copy a life form, to have it be alive. Some people think it’s playing god, that it’s obscene, disgusting, and dangerous, and I don’t totally disagree with that either. I think there are deep ethical issues, but as an iconologist who studies the history of images, the history of the concept of images, I have to say, the future of the image is captured in the notion of the clone, that is, the living image of a living thing.

**Recommended Reading**:

The Future of the Image by Jacques Rancière

The Ballad of Abu Ghraib by Phillip Gourevitch and Errol Morris

To read more blog entries at GUERNICA click HERE .

To read more interviews at “GUERNICA”:https://www.guernicamag.com/ click “HERE”:https://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/.

SUBSCRIBE TO GUERNICA’S RSS FEED



OTHERS:

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Share on FacebookShare on TwitterAdd to BufferShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrSubmit to StumbleUpon
Submit to redditShare on App.netShare via email

You might also like

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting