Interview with W. J. T. Mitchell
By Asbjørn Grønstad and Øyvind Vågnes
From the online magazine Image & Narrative, November 2006
• For this specific issue of Image and Narrative, it would be very interesting to hear your thoughts about the iconoclasm of a number of the grand narratives of cultural theory in recent years, not least against the background of your idea of “living images” in What Do Pictures Want? But let us begin with “the object,” and return to the more sweeping claims of theory later. In What Do Pictures Want? you describe critical practice as a way of responding to a “resonant” object, and this made us think about Mieke Bal’s description of the object that “talks back” in her Travelling Concepts of the Humanities (8-10). Bal calls for a “qualified return to ‘close reading’ that has gone out of style” (10); in What Do Pictures Want?, you suggest that answers to the central questions of visuality “must be sought in the specific, concrete images that most conspicuously embody the anxiety over image-making and image-smashing in our time.” We’d like you to comment on this, but perhaps you first could talk a little bit about what you in Picture Theory call the “metapicture,” since that conceptualization made us think about Bal’s notion of a “thinking” object in the first place?
— In Picture Theory I tried to distinguish three different kinds of metapictures: First, the picture that explicitly reflects on, or “doubles” itself, as in so many drawings by Saul Steinberg, in which the production of the picture we are seeing re-appears inside the picture. This is most routinely and literally seen in the effect of the “mise en abime,” the Quaker Oats box that contains a picture of the Quaker Oats box, that contains yet another picture of a Quaker Oats box, and so on, to infinity. (Technically, I gather, the term first appeared in reference to heraldry, where the division of a coat of arms into increasingly diminutive sectors containing other coats of arms traces the evolution of a genealogy). Second, the picture that contains another picture of a different kind, and thus re-frames or recontextualizes the inner picture as “nested” inside of a larger, outer picture. Third, the picture that is framed, not inside another picture, but within a discourse that reflects on it as an exemplar of “picturality” as such. This third meaning implies, of course, that any picture whatsoever (a simple line-drawing of a face, a multi-stable image like the Duck-Rabbit, Velasquez’s Las Meninas) can become a metapicture, a picture that is used to reflect on the nature of pictures.
The ever-present potentiality of the metapicture has several implications for the rest of your question. First, it suggests that any picture is at least potentially a kind of vortex or “black hole” that can “suck in” the consciousness of a beholder, and at the same time (and for the same reason) “spew out” an infinite series of reflections. This is not just a matter of the infinite or indefinite spatial depth that is suggested the moment a surface is marked and thus opened as a space for perception and reflective thought. It is also right there on the surface, in the infinity of aspects that a line or color or blurred erasure can provoke. As William Blake puts it, infinity is located in the “Definite & Determinate Identity” of the “bounding line,” and not just the endless, empty space of perspective or the void of the unmarked space, the blankness or chaos of potential out of which images emerge. (Think here of Leonardo’s advice to painters to look at the random splashes of mud left on plaster walls by passing carts, and to meditate on the forms of figures and landscapes that seem to emerge from them; or Nelson Goodman’s notion of the “density” and “repleteness” of analog symbol systems).
Of course this infinity of potential aspects in a picture is rarely experienced. Most images pass by and through us so quickly that we scarcely notice them. They are fast food for the eyes, and mostly junk food. But some of them demand more attention, and even the trivial or overlooked ones have this potential waiting to be tapped. The approach I am proposing with the metapicture is thus quite compatible with Mieke Bal’s appeal for a return to the “close reading” of images (though I’m sure she would want to interrogate the model of reading itself and raise the question of what we mean by reading, and whether the image is perhaps always opening up a threshold of the unreadable and even the indecipherable). My general pedagogical aim is to slow down the reception of the image, to encourage prolonged contemplation, second and third looks, reversals of perceptual fields such as figure/ground and surface/depth, and the Foucauldian strategy of suspending the rule of the “proper name” and nominative discourse over the image, as in his treatment ofLas Meninas. I urge this practice, not (as is sometimes feared) because I have a magical or mystical view of images, but because I am seeking a clear-sighted analysis of the nature of pictures, one that is willing to explore its object with rigorous phenomenological or psychoanalytic or semiotic or socio-historical modes of interpretation. But I do not see any of these modes of analysis as a uniquely privileged metalanguage for the understanding of pictures. And the aim of the metapicture is to create a critical space in which images could function, not simply as illustrations or “examples” of the power of this or that method, but as “cases” that to some extent (generally unknown in advance) that might transform or deconstruct the method that is brought to them. The widest implication of the metapicture is that pictures might themselves be sites of theoretical discourse, not merely passive objects awaiting explanation by some non-pictorial (or iconoclastic) master-discourse. In relation to the domesticating tendencies of semiotics, for instance, with its taxonomies of signs and sign-functions, I like to think of the image as the “wild sign,” the signifying entity that has the potential to explode signification, to open up the realm of nonsense, madness, randomness, anarchy, and even “nature” itself in the midst of the cultural labyrinth of second nature that human beings create around themselves. InWhat Do Pictures Want? I put this in terms of the following analogy (roughly paraphrased): “when it comes to images, then, we are in something like the position of savages who do not know where babies come from. We literally do not know where images come from, or where they go when (or even if) they die.”
The metapicture, then, is also a figure that helps to explain the often-observed uncanniness of images, their ghostliness or spectrality, their tendency to look back at the beholder, or seemingly to respond to the presence of the beholder, to “want something” from the beholder. I don’t think we can properly understand images without some reckoning with vitalism and animism. And I do not mean by this some kind of regressive return to primitive thought, but (as Levi-Strauss so often insisted) a taking account of the persistence of the “savage mind” at the dialectical heart of whatever we mean by the modern. I would also want to urge that we not see this exclusively in anthropomorphic terms, as if the vitalistic or animated character of the signs and symbols we create around us could be exhaustively described in terms of personification or prosopopoeia. Certainly, the conceit of the “desiring picture” or the “animated icon” may involve an analogy with human attributes, but the features of vitality, animation, and desire (at minimum, appetite) also permeate downward, into the animal and vegetable kingdoms. This is why, in What Do Pictures Want? I want to stress the non- or inhuman desires of images, and explore the neglected concept of totemism (with its emphasis on natural iconographies—plants, animals, and even minerals, including fossils, of course), in addition to the more familiar and anthropocentric concepts of fetishism and idolatry. My aim inWhat Do Pictures Want? is thus not to project personhood onto pictures, but to engage with what I call “the lives and loves” of images. So, while I like very much Mieke Bal’s concept of “art that thinks,” I don’t want to begin with the assumption that it always thinks like us. The principles of vitalism and animism require that we also take account of what are sometimes called “lower” forms of consciousness—mere sentience, for instance, or sensuous awareness, responsiveness, as well as forms of memory and desire. What we call thinking (in images or in living things) goes deeper than philosophical reflection or self-consciousness. Animals remember. And most of human consciousness is pre- or unconscious. The nervous system is not the only system in our bodies that can learn. There is also the immune system, which learns to recognize and deal with an staggeringly large number of alien organisms in the life of any individual, and which works through a mechanism of copying, mimesis, and reproduction of antibodies that are symmetrical “twins” of the antigens they combat.
• Do you think of yours and Bal’s alternative as symptomatic in any way for how things are turning around, with the increase of interdisciplinary work being done in the humanities?
— I hope they are more than symptomatic. My aim is to be diagnostic and (even more challenging) to create prognoses or interventionist strategies both in pedagogy and research. From the standpoint of disciplinarity, this means something more than the familiar invocation of “interdisciplinarity,” which in my view is a bit too safe and predictable (I’ve argued this elsewhere in an essay entitled “Interdisciplinarity and Visual Culture”). I prefer a notion of image science and visual culture as sites of what I want to call “indisciplinarity,” moments of breakage, failure, or deconstruction of existing disciplinary structures accompanied by the emergence of new formations (to some extent this is probably a reflection of my long-standing attraction to anarchist theories of knowledge, the sort pioneered by Paul Feyerabend). It is clear, to begin with, that images do not belong exclusively to any single discipline—not semiotics, or art history, or media studies, or even cultural studies (if it is a discipline). Their study compels us to be interdisciplinary at a bare minimum, just as paleontology requires that its researchers be geologists, biologists, anatomists, and artists.
• Perhaps we could return, then, along the lines of these thoughts, to how a critical engagement with the object has to address what we initially referred to as the iconoclasm of some of the “grand narratives” of cultural theory in recent years?
— I think that many of the modernist master-narratives (say of Marxism, psychoanalysis, or of modern art and philosophy) were iconoclastic in very fundamental ways. They tended to treat images as the object of destructive critique, of critical operations that would dispel their power, eliminate them from consciousness, and smash them once and for all. Ideology critique, for instance, was consistently portrayed as a practice of emancipation from a false consciousness depicted as a repertoire of seductive and false images. Ditto for psychoanalysis and its relation to imagination and fantasy. The history of philosophy, from Plato’s banishment of the artist to Richard Rorty’s “linguistic turn,” resolutely set its face against the image. As Wittgenstein put it, “a picture held us captive, and we could not get outside of it.” Heidegger thought that modernity had trapped humanity in an “age of the world picture,” and that philosophy (or poetry) might find a way out of it.
What has happened in our time, I think, is that this pervasive iconophobia and iconoclasm has become itself the object of a second-order set of metapictures. Martin Jay’s book, Downcast Eyes, was a fundamental breakthrough in putting the anti-ocularcentric philosophical tradition under a magnifying glass. And if I started listing the number of books on iconoclasm in the last thirty years, from David Freedberg, say, to Marie-Jose Mondzain and Dario Gamboni, we could fill up many pages of this interview. These attempts to “depict iconoclasm” (if I may put it that way) are symptomatic of what I’ve called “the pictorial turn,” the treatment of the attack on images, not as an automatically reliable strategy, but as itself a cultural phenomenon that needs critical reflection and theorizing.
• In What Do Pictures Want? you describe a critical practice in which one strikes images “with just enough force to make them resonate, but not as much as to smash them”.
— As you know, I derive this strategy from Nietzsche’s preface to Twilight of the Idols, where the greatest philosophical iconoclast of them all proposes a method of dealing with idols that sounds at first like traditional image destruction. Nietzsche tells us that he will “philosophize with a hammer,” striking not at temporary idols, but at the “eternal idols” that have mystified the entire philosophical tradition. What is sometimes forgotten is that he goes on to elaborate the metaphor of the hammer, depicting it not as an instrument for destruction, but for “sounding the idols.” In case we miss the point, he even goes on to elaborate it further by trading in the figure of the hammer for that of the “tuning fork” as the instrument for striking the idols. This dazzling metaphor (which is in fact a philosophical image, a theoretical picture) has at least two implications: the first is that Nietzsche does not aim to destroy the eternal idols (how could he, since they are eternal?) but only to “sound” them—that is, to make them speak, to divulge their secrets. He aims, in other words, to break only the silence that is so characteristic of idols. The other implication is that the sounding is dialogic or dialectical: by exchanging the hammer for a tuning fork, Nietzsche suggests that it is not only the idols that are sounded, but the critical discourse that is brought to them. I see this implication as deeply connected to the notion (argued at some length in What Do Pictures Want?) that images cannot be destroyed. (Pictures, by contrast, material objects that are the bearers of images, can of course be destroyed; but the image survives that destruction, and often becomes even more powerful in its tendency to return in other media, including memory, narrative, and fantasy). The act of destroying or disfiguring an image, as Michael Taussig argues in Defacement, has the paradoxical effect of enhancing the life of that image. An image is never quite so lively as in the moment when someone tries to kill it.
• Of course, your analogy between images and living organisms in What Do Pictures Want? should both provoke and inspire readers. “It certainly keeps me awake at night,” you write (89). What is the response you’ve had so far? And perhaps you could say a little bit more about iconoclasm from the perspective of “living images.”
— Skepticism, and critical resistance, but also a considerable amount of curiosity and a fair amount of supportive testimony. The best question that has been raised is: what are the limits of this analogy? Where does it run out of steam? And I have to confess that I don’t know the answer to this question, partly because the theory of analogy (as my colleague Barbara Stafford has shown) is so deeply woven into the problem of images and pictures as such. One interesting limit is reached, I think, in the question of where images come from, and where they go. Should we postulate, for instance, that images (in contrast to pictures, the specific, concrete, material supports or embodiments of images) can “neither be created nor destroyed” as the physicists used to say of matter and energy? At this point we are engaged in speculative suppositions, which I think of as probes to test the limits of an analogy.
Art historians, of course, are quick to point out (and I am quick to acknowledge) that the analogy between images and living organisms is not really a new idea. In fact, I explicitly state in What Do Pictures Want?that I am not presenting this as a novel idea, but as one that has an ancient pedigree, and re-surfaces in varying ways in every culture and historical period that I know about. If there is novelty in what I am proposing, it is in the universality of the claim, especially my argument that the idea of the image as life-form cannot be sequestered in the savage mind, or in the minds of children, neurotics, etc. The whole effort to deny the vitalist/animist metapicture in favor of modern rationalism, materialism, or secular, critical realism, I want to suggest, is precisely a form of disavowal that inevitably generates the “double consciousness” I have been outlining here. And it’s not that I believe we could somehow overcome this double consciousness with some sort of therapeutic critical method, and settle for one side of it. My argument is that the so-called primitive or savage or superstitious view of images as life-forms was also accompanied by a fair amount of skepticism and critical realism. The best test-case for this is the attitude of children toward images, especially the host of “transitional objects” (Winnicott) such as dolls and stuffed animals. Parents know very well that children know that their dolls are not really alive, that they are “only pretending” and playing—however vividly–with the conceit of talking horses and dolls that wet (this is why my own kids never seemed very impressed with dolls that “really” wet their pants). But we forget this lesson when we engage in what I call “secondary beliefs,” or “beliefs about the beliefs of other people,” in which we attribute to them a literal belief in what we, with our superior modern, enlightened consciousness, know to be “merely” figurative beliefs. The classic instance of this is the attribution of promiscuity and cannibalism to idolaters. Promiscuity and cannibalism may be out there, but I don’t think we can posit a necessary relation between them and idolatry, which is just the over-estimation of the importance of an image, as seen from the point of view of a devout iconoclast, who projects a fantasy of what an idolater “must believe.”
Of course there are cases in which an idolatry/iconoclasm complex arises that is absolutely pathological and toxic in character, especially when peoples go to war over an image or a metaphor. Nothing I’m saying would deny the possibility of a psychotic (as opposed to the normal neurotic) relation to images. My point is that the (futile) effort to destroy the offending image is invariably counter-productive; it is a battle with a phantom or spectre that only makes the offending image stronger. I’m thinking here, of course, of the current “war on terror” which is really a war of and on a body of images, one which (as always) finds a way to mutilate and destroy actual, living human bodies, while the images themselves just grow stronger.
• Could we ask you how you came to think in terms of a “double consciousness,” which is a concept you borrow from W. E. B. DuBois?
— I think it came to me out of the conjunction of critical race theory and the role of images in the practice of racial stereotyping. Double consciousness, for DuBois, arises out of a consciousness of being perceived as an image, through a screen or “veil” of racist misrecognition, and the “second sight” that the subject of the racist gaze receives as a result. Homi Bhabha’s classic essay on “The Other Question,” which generalizes the peculiar duplicity and dialectics of the stereotype was another key moment. But I don’t think the whole thing came into focus until I saw Spike Lee’s marvelous and disturbing film, Bamboozled, with its relentless exploration of the re-appropriation (and thus re-animation) of blackface minstrelsy across the full range of modern media, from the original minstrel show, through vaudeville, cinema, radio, television, and the internet. Spike Lee’s film struck me as not only the most profound cinematic reflection on racial stereotyping that we have, but also as a precise anatomy of the way “double consciousness” is constituted, not just by racial difference, but by images as such—the uncanny doubleness we have been discussing (presence/absence, depiction/metadepiction, “wanting” as desiring/lacking, the stereotype as alive or dead, sterile or all too fertile).
• It’s a good example of how the idea of “living images” enables one to think critically about images in a fresh way. Perhaps we could continue this reflection around iconoclasm and the image with reference to a specific example? One of us (Øyvind Vågnes) is currently finishing a dissertation on the Zapruder film. It consists of a series of chapters that look at various re-appropriations of the film, or to stay with your terminology inWhat Do Pictures Want?, at some of the “habitats” where images “reside.” Reading your book has inspired the idea that such a footage strip could be considered a kind of “fabula” that we need to look at carefully in order to find out how it “desires” something new for each narrative. The concept of ekphrasis, the verbal representation of visual representation, seems to open for a host of critical perspectives about the tensions that arise in the narrativization of a historical event that seems to be so strongly connected to a specific image. Do you have a response to this that you would like to share with the readers of Image and Narrative?
— I think the Zapruder film is a perfect case of an image—or rather a whole image-sequence—”wanting” a narrative and discursive frame, in the multiple senses of wanting—i.e., needing, demanding, and lacking. The film is, from the very beginning, already a re-appropriation, a doubled image in the sense that the Presidential motorcade was itself a deliberately staged “photo op,” meant to put on stage the openness and youthfulness of the Kennedy presidency, by driving through the hostile streets of Dallas without a protective bubble, his beautiful young wife by his side. The scene was, in that sense, meant to be shot —though of course not in this way. It shows the riskiness in the notion of the photo op as such, the staged production of an image which can be re-appropriated and take on a significance quite antithetical to the producers’ intentions. (For a comic parallel, we might look at the “Mission Accomplished” photo op staged by the Bush administration to declare victory in Iraq, which became the subject of numerous parodies, and had to be resolutely disavowed by the White House).
The Zapruder film, once it enters mass circulation, spreading throughout the habitat of national and international imaginaries, clearly wants something, especially in the sense that it lacks and needs something, namely, an explanatory frame, a context. It becomes the central exhibit in every conspiracy theory, every judicial and journalistic investigation into the Kennedy assassination. And it reaches its apotheosis, in my view, when it is woven into the mise en scene of Oliver Stone’s JFK. There, it is as if this kernel “fabula,” as you describe it, becomes the primal scene of what Stone called a “myth,” literally (as Northrop Frye would insist) a “song about a god.” It’s as if not just the event represented in the Zapruder film, but its grainy, out of focus, jumpy, and fragmentary character becomes the fundamental tonal structure of Oliver Stone’s cinematography in this film.
As you know, I’ve written (in “From CNN to JFK” in Picture Theory), about Stone’s re-appropriation of Zapruder to create a counter-myth to the Warren Commission Report. And I’m delighted that you are going to give this iconic fabula or narreme a comprehensive treatment. What I would like to learn from you in this research is what—if any—master-narrative will emerge from your survey of the entire range of habitats that this image has entered? And what does this image want from you, as a cultural historian and iconologist?
You ask about ekphrasis in the expanded field. I think the effort to translate any visual experience into words, whether it involves art works or images or not, is involved in the problematic of ekphrasis. So a novelistic description of a scene or an ordinary object in everyday life is also a kind of ekphrasis.
• Perhaps it is fitting to end this interview with looking both back and ahead. First, looking back to the historical moment that you, in Picture Theory, called “the end of postmodernism” and “the pictorial turn,” to what extent would you say that the humanities in the States and in Europe in the decade since have adequately begun to absorb both the conceptual and the institutional implications of your argument?
— This is really an impossible question for me to answer. No one, of course, ever feels that they are adequately understood or appreciated. But I do feel that my books are read fairly widely, and often by a non-specialist audience, one that includes artists as well as scholars. That is extremely gratifying. The one thing I find missing, I suppose, is a brilliant, well-reasoned negative critique, one that would try to dismantle the entire structure of the arguments I have been making over the last twenty years. What Do Pictures Want?may, in some semi-conscious way, be an attempt to provoke just such a critique by deliberately going “too far” with a vitalist/animist theoretical model for images. As my mentor William Blake put it: “you will not know what is enough until you know what is too much.”
My linking of the pictorial turn to the end of postmodernism was probably an over-hasty truncation of two different ways of framing historical periodization. The “end” of postmodernism was not simply a “beginning” for the pictorial turn, first, because postmodernism only “ended” as a name for the present moment. The pictorial turn was, in my view, already well under way, and perhaps was one part of the postmodern, especially in Debord and Baudrillard’s critique of spectacle and simulation.
• This is a blatantly speculative question, of course, but who better to ask? Our final question is: What comes after the turn to visuality?
— I’d like to amend the question to include “picturality,” and the “pictorial turn” (or “iconic turn” as Gottfried Boehm defines it) as well as the “visual turn,” because I see them as closely related, distinct, and often confused with one another. But let’s pretend for the moment that this “turn,” whatever it is, has in fact taken place in a number of different disciplines and cultural locations—in art history, media studies, cultural studies, philosophy, etc., on the one hand, and in mass or popular culture on the other. Certainly there is plenty of testimony that something of this sort has taken place. The notion that we live in a culture dominated by images, by spectacle, surveillance, and visual display, is so utterly commonplace that I am sometimes astonished at the way people announce it as if they had just discovered it. My aim has been to subject this commonplace to critical and historical analysis, to question whether and where and to what extent it is true, and what it means. And the first distinction I would want to make is between the pictorial turn as a matter of mass perception, collective anxiety about images and visual media, on the one hand, and a turn to images and visual culture within the realm of the intellectual disciplines, especially the human sciences, but also to a remarkable extent, within the natural sciences (medicine, biology, physics, neuroscience, natural history). To some extent I think of the “mass” version of the pictorial turn as a perennial and recurrent phenomenon, the turn as a cultural “trope” that recurs whenever a new image technology, a new medium, or new apparatus of spectacularization or surveillance comes along. Thus, the invention of artificial perspective, or alphabetic writing, or moveable type, or photography are accompanied by a sense that a “pictorial turn” is occurring, one which is often seen as threatening traditional modes of knowledge and behavior—or (more characteristically within modernism) threatening an atavistic return to tribalism, irrationality, superstition, illiteracy—the entire repertoire of stereotypes associated with idolatry and (let’s not leave out) ideological mystification.
I would distinguish, then, this popular version of the pictorial turn from the emergence of something we might call “image science” as a site of interdisciplinary turbulence. Strange conversations are going on these days between physics and aesthetics, scientists of the eye, the brain, and that extended nervous system known as “the media”; between biologists and iconologists. Archives of scientific images accumulate, and a new, image-and media-conscious account of the history of science emerges. An inquiry into a host of related topics is inaugurated: visual culture, media studies, studies of word and image, audio-visuality and performance; visual-verbal cognition; visual anthropology; visual and material culture. This form of image-science is a globally distributed phenomenon mainly within the academy, but to a large extent beyond it as well in the realm of public and popular writing, where the commonplace notion of a pictorial turn rules.
Yet all this is grounded, I think, in a utopian impulse that yearns for a critical relation to images, a way of demystifying, opposing, and critiquing their power with a counter-discourse, a way of critically separating them into the usual binary categories: false and true; evil and good; inauthentic and authentic; worthless and valuable; non-art and art. Image science is, in this sense, already around as a modernist science, and indeed I have been learning this year from art historians Horst Bredekamp and Karl Clausberg at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin just how deep the roots of image science are in 19 th century Germany. Science converges on the image from more than one direction, then: on the one side from the history of technology; from questions of representation in logic, mathematics, notational theory, writing, information and semiotics; from the realm of the perceptual, cognitive, psychological sciences. On the other side, a group of ethical, political, socio-cultural, and historical disciplines converge. The critique of the image becomes a moral and political task. And iconoclasm, the destruction of idols or “images of the other,” becomes the default discourse. My suggestion is that these two sides of image science—let’s call them the “critical” and the “hypothetical” (in the sense of an empirical hypothesis) can find a common ground in the concept of the indestructibility of images as elements of consciousness and the construction of a symbolic world, a human world. Again, I do not mean that pictures cannot be destroyed, or that images of specific things cannot disappear or be forgotten. My claim is rather that images are the thing that allows matter to have memory, as Bergson might have put it, and that the intentional effort to destroy an image always guarantees its survival in some other medium.
What comes after the “pictorial turn”? In view of what I’ve just been saying, my prediction is a ” re turn to the picture” in the light of a newly formulated concept, or metapicture of the image as such. The concept of a pictorial turn opens up a new dimension of the history of culture, just as the concept of the unconscious makes us read art and literature a new way. Not just a history of images as human productions (the traditional task of iconology and art history), but a new, critical history of images that emphasizes their role as “living” historical agents at turning points in human affairs and human understanding. Horst Bredekamp calls this the Bildakt or “picture act” that is the best name we have for the necessary framework or “appropriate situation” that gives a speech act its efficacy. Art history itself was the product of an earlier pictorial turn based in photography and mechanical reproduction of images. Our current pictorial turn is different from that: photography itself is becoming a different medium, and (even more important) a whole new realm of image production has emerged in the life sciences, epitomized by the highly controversial and publicized process of cloning. The clone—especially the human clone–signifies the updating of the pictorial turn in our time, the literal realization of the ancient dream of creating a living image. We might call this the “biopictorial turn,” a technical advance which depends on the convergence of digital technologies with the biology. So the pictorial turn, even at the level of research in the learned disciplines, is also a cyclical and recurrent trope, even though I would not want to confuse it with the pictorial turn as matter of popular anxiety. A pictorial turn (a turning aside to graven images and idolatry) was a constitutive moment in the development of Jewish theology, at the same time it is narrated in the Bible as a historical moment of mass hysteria and mass murder (thousands of Israelites are massacred by their own leader for violating a commandment against idolatry that has not yet been delivered to them). Plato was responding to a pictorial turn in his arguments against the arts and the invention of writing (“writing, Phaedrus, is unfortunately like painting”). As Deleuze puts it, “Philosophy always pursues the same task, Iconology.” But it does not always do so under the same conditions. Iconology is now different because the technoscientific and cultural conditions of the image have changed. So when I am asked to name the cultural-historical period that we are entering or have entered, I follow Walter Benjamin word for word and call this the age of biocybernetic reproduction, in order to specify the convergence of digital technology and the life sciences that make the image what it is today. I think this is a more adequate description of our time than “postmodernism,” which always struck me as a temporary place-holder, one that served important polemical and critical purposes in the 1970s and 80s, but has now itself been consigned to a relatively brief historical moment. As you might guess, this also means that I have some problems with that other, massively influential and ambiguous historical placeholder known as the “modern.” I lean toward Bruno Latour’s view that “we have never been modern,” and that postmodernism was an interlude whose main purpose was to help us see that. But we will never, so far as I can tell, get beyond the pictorial turn, and with it a system of “world pictures” that will lie in our language and hold us captive.