WJT Mitchell notes on Iconology

In Iconology, Mitchell explores the rhetoric of imagery, otherwise known as iconology, the connection between “logos” (words, ideas, discourse) of icons (images, pictures, or likeness)—a tradition that essentially studies what images say (by persuading, telling, describing, etc) (1).   His proclaimed  rhetorical purpose is “to show how the notion of imagery serves as a kind of relay connecting theories of art, language, and the mind with conceptions of social, cultural, and political value” (2).

This is a key part of thinking through how the state builds discourse and propaganda.  The cultural production becomes a way to promote a certain ideology that brings moral legitimacy to the government.

By tracing how images were discussed and perceived through various historical eras, he explains that unlike the era when images were thought to be transparent windows to reality, in modernity, the image is perceived to be a sign that is deceitful, distorting kind of representation.

In effect, Mitchell deduces that “images are like an actor on the historical stage, a presence or character endowed with legendary status, a history that parallels and participates in the stories we tell ourselves about own evolution from creatures “made in the image” of a creator, to creatures who makes themselves and their world in their own image” (9).

Mitchell also gives special emphasis to the relations or dialectic between word and image.  As he notes, “the relationship between words and images reflects, within the realm of representation, signification, and communication, the relations we posit between symbols and the world, signs and their meanings (43).

The distinction between word and images, Mitchell argues, is a “struggle that carries the fundamental contradictions of our culture into the heart of theoretical discourse itself” (44).

Our goal should be an investigation into what interests and whose powers are served by this struggle and what “nature already informs both sides of the conversation” (44 and 46).