W.J.T. Mitchell, Vital Signs | Cloning Terror, in: idem, What do Pictures Want?, Chicago, IL, 2005, p. 6.


10, 11, 12… This list is disordered and, of course, potentially infinite. Next up could be psychoanalytic theories, or theories developed in hermeneutics, psychology, phenomenology,  cognitive science, neurobiology, or rhetoric and media theory. There is no end, but more significantly, there is no order and no way to know what ‹order› would be.

I think it is fair to say that a list like this is hopeless from the very beginning. The question is why that should be so. Here are the first two of a total of six reasons I propose as a kind of heuristic introduction to the concerns that are explored in the book What is an Image?

1. There are theories of images, but most of them are other people’s theories.

By this I mean that they can be interesting and coherent, but less than ideally suited for the purposes of writing about visual art. Few seem useful for illuminating the ways people use the word «image» when they talk about art. One way to think about this is to make a distinction between theories of images and theories that are about what happens to the concept «image,» or to particular images, in different settings. For some writers, including some participants who came to Chicago to talk about theories of images, what counts more than theories of images is theories that take image as a given term, and ask about about how images work, what relations they create or presuppose, what agency they might have, or how they appear in discourse. That is a live issue throughout this book, and especially in Section 3 of the Seminars, titled «Accounts of images, and accounts that begin from images.»

2. Once the focus shifts to the distinction between theories about images and theories that use images, then another possibility also appears: the difference between these two kinds of accounts and the idea that pictures also produce theories. That has been discussed by several authors including Hubert Damisch and Jean-Louis Schefer, and it is contemplated in Tom Mitchell’s Picture Theory or What Do Pictures Want? His interest in that book is in theorizing pictures, but also in «pictures themselves as forms of theorizing.» [23] Susan Buck-Morss has also attempted to find ways to let pictures guide and theorize her inquiries. But this theme is not developed in Buck-Morss’s books or in Mitchell’s Picture Theory, where images continue to work as mnemonics and as examples of many things voiced in the text, but not as objections to the text, or revisions of arguments presented in the text. It could be argued that the idea of images that theorize has been identified but not developed in art history, theory, and criticism, or in visual studies. [24]

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