The following text is the first half of the Introduction to a book called What is an Image?

The event that gave rise to the book was a week-long series of seminars, held in Chicago in July, 2008. There were five Faculties: Gottfried Boehm, W.J.T. Mitchell, Jacqueline Lichtenstein, Marie-José Mondzain, and myself. In addition there were fifteen Fellows from about eight countries, including China. The book will be published in 2011, as part of the series Stone Art Theory Seminars (Pennsylvania State University Press). More information is available here www.stonesummertheoryinstitute.org and the publisher’s page is here www.psupress.org. The event, and the book, show how difficult it is to conceptualize images. My Introduction, excerpted here, does not ‹solve› that problem, but tries to show why images are especially difficult to conceptualize.


There is, luckily, no way to summarize contemporary theories of the image. The very disorganization of the subject is reason enough to worry about the state of writing that depends on the word ‹image› and its deceptive cognates such as ‹picture› and Bild. In this Introduction, I want to say a few things about the kind of disorganization that pertains to concepts of the image, and the reasons why that sort of incoherence makes it impossible even to make a reasonable list of the meanings that are assigned to words such as ‹image.› This Introduction is therefore a sort of anti-Kantian prolegomenon, in the sense that what I have in mind is the conditions of the impossibility of a certain field. But first it may be useful to say a little about why it might be interesting to ask the question, What is an Image? to begin with.

There are at least three answers to this question about a question, depending on whether subject is art instruction, art history, or visual studies.

First, regarding the studio art environment: in art instruction, it is often assumed that the visual exists in a separate cognitive realm from language, logic, or mathematics. This assumption often takes the form of the common, and now scientifically outdated, claim that the right brain and left brain are configured in such a way that they can explain what artists do. More generally, in studio art settings it is often said that some things can only be communicated through the visual and not through other senses or media. Art pedagogy is also broadly committed to the notion that the visual is politically privileged, in the sense that politically oriented practices are optimally situated as visual arts practices.

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